For Feb. 9, 2014: 5 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                        Isaiah 58:1-9a

When the people of Jacob—the inhabitants of Judah and Israel—return from exile in Babylon, they wonder why their fasting and self-punishment seems not to impress the Lord. Isaiah pulls no punches: the best sacrifice is to feed and heal and free God’s afflicted children.

The Response                                          Psalm 112:1-9

Psalm 112:1-9 praises those who fear the Lord: they will be mighty, merciful and full of compassion, generous, and just. For such upright people and through them, light will shine.

The Epistle                                                              1 Corinthians 2:1-12

In the Roman world, one function of education was to produce powerful, persuasive orators. The people of Corinth expected great speech from the apostle Paul, but were disappointed. Here Paul explains: human wisdom sheds little light on either God’s wisdom or the astonishing depth of God’s desire that we be saved.

The Gospel                                                                   Matthew 5:13-20

The gospel for the fifth Sunday in Epiphany picks up the Sermon on the Mount just after the Beatitudes. In today’s world, salt can be bought at the 99-cent store and getting light is as easy as flipping a switch, but in Jesus’ time both salt and light were precious and often difficult to obtain.

Ponderables

The readings for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany pose a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum of the faith: whether righteousness comes from doing good or doing good comes of being righteous.

On the one hand, Isaiah enlightens the Israelites returning from Babylon as to why God appears not to pay proper respect to their fasting and sackcloth and ashes: they are doing it for show and to get blessing and healing for themselves. Only if they bless and heal the poor and the marginalized will they receive God’s light and vindication. Similarly, the psalmist notes, only those who do good will get wealth and light and honor and remembrance in death. (It is worth noting that, by Isaiah’s time, the notion that there might be life after death did not yet figure in Jewish theology: being remembered was the best one could hope for.) In this context, Jesus’ observation that getting into heaven takes more righteousness than even the doggedly righteous scribes and Pharisees can muster is disturbing (and sometimes being disturbed is good for us).

On the other hand, Jesus tells the crowd—and us—not that they should become the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but that we already are. This coheres with the idea that the passage from 1 Corinthians develops: our righteousness is God’s doing rather than ours. Then Jesus instructs us to let the light that we already are shine by doing good things. And we all know that habits, good and bad, are self-reinforcing.

Almost six hundred years ago, Martin Luther weighed in on the side of sola fide—‘only by faith’. But many of us find that the light that we shed, and the good that we’re willing to expect of others, has a bearing on the light that we’re able to receive. So what if, with righteousness received, the answer is “both”? And how do we make room for everyone’s light to shine?

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