Posts Tagged 'fasting'

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?

For Feb. 17, 2013: 1 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Deuteronomy 26:1-11

The Book of Deuteronomy, though it tells of the time of Moses, was actually written centuries later, perhaps during the time of the exile or captivity in Babylon. This story about Israel’s past redemption from a time of suffering—the “wandering Aramean” is the patriarch Jacob—is surely meant as a story of present hope as well.

The Response            Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

The Epistle            Romans 10:8b-13

The letters to the Corinthians that we have heard over the last month set out how God’s justified people should live and behave. Now, writing to the Jewish and Greek Christians in Rome, Paul explains just what is required to be justified and to be saved: believing and confessing that Jesus is Lord—no matter who you are.

The Gospel            Luke 4:1-13

 

Further thoughts

As Lent begins, many people undertake fasts or other forms of denial. The rest of us may not manage to launch such a discipline or may falter in carrying it out; we may wonder whether we’ve given up the right thing, or we may sadly conclude, as everyone else apparently gets it right, that we are uniquely failures and some of us—all right, I admit it, I’m talking about myself—may interpret Lenten discipline as an order to deal with All-That-Is-Wrong-With-Me-And-Lord-Knows-There’s-Plenty by my very own self before I’m fit to show my face among Christians.

Woven into today’s readings for the first Sunday in Lent, in addition to the obvious lessons about trusting God and resisting the devil, are some subtler and perhaps less expected ones that confront these points.

In the season of giving up chocolate, the reading from Deuteronomy startles by bidding us to feast in gratitude for God’s blessings, and we are to make sure we share with everyone—foreigners, slaves, employees, panhandlers, even bosses—so they also may rejoice and give thanks.

As to not measuring up, Paul’s message for the Romans, and us, is that none of us measures up, whatever it looks like; what’s more, expecting to measure up misses the point, for the salvation that today’s psalm promises is exactly what God will deliver to us, if we believe to the extent of acting on it.

The passage from Luke similarly contains a surprise. Jesus is facing a powerful and determined adversary, so one expects him to show power in return: a little flexing of divine muscle, or at least an assertion in his own voice of his godly superiority. Yet the very Son of God doesn’t do so. Even Jesus’ final response, while it comes close to sounding exasperated, is nevertheless phrased, like the preceding ones, as a quotation from scriptures that he would have studied as a kid in the synagogue with everyone else. He relies not on his godhood but on God’s Word and the community of faith and love that has shaped him on earth: precisely the tools that, through God’s bounty, are available to us.

The most rigorous Lenten discipline may be learning to trust more than try.


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