Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday 9 February 2014 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Salt / Light / Righteousness according to Jesus / Wisdom / Discipleship / Christian character / Spiritual truth / True spirituality

Sentence: Shine forth fom your throne upon the cherubim; restore us O God; show us the light of your face and we shall be saved. (Psalm 80:1,3)

Collect:

We praise you, God,
that the light of Christ shines in our darkness
and is never overcome;
show us the way we must go to eternal day;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Psalm 112:1-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

Commentary:

Isaiah 58:1-9a

With an eye on the gospel reading (from the Sermon on the Mount) in which Jesus teaches what the real oil is on what God expects of God's people about the way they live, we read this stirring passage as a challenge in a similar vein: what does God really, really expect of us?

The prophet (bad pun coming up) fastens on fasting as an issue. He paints a picture of his fellow Israelites fasting intently and faithfully and then complaining that God seemingly offers no accreditation (v.3). To them he says, as the voice of God speaks through him, your fasting is a sham. Verses 3-7 outline both the problem (fasting covers over unjust treatment of others) and the remedy (understand the true fast of God and do that instead of going without food).

Once the prophet launches into his memorable method of outlining what true fasting is, by asking an emotively powerful set of rhetorical questions, all Jewish and Christian ethics would never be the same again.

'Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice .. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house ...' (vss. 6-7)

Psalm 112:1-9

This psalm ties neatly into the Old Testament reading re just living (vss. 5-6, 9) and with the gospel, especially Jesus telling the disciples that they are the light of the world = 'They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright, they are gracious, merciful and righteous' (vs. 4). Indeed one way to summarise the whole of the Sermon on the Mount could be to say that those disciples who live accordingly will be 'gracious, merciful and righteous.'

One feature of the life encouraged by the psalm is that the righteous live lives of 'happy stability' (see vss. 1, 6-8).

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

This is a very deep passage on which we could linger in theological reflection at many points. Its depth comes from Paul exploring the 'mystery of God' in the context of Corinth, a seaside city of many cultures with a church of several allegiances informed by two great philosophies of the day, Hellenism with its interest in 'wisdom' and Judaism with its interest in 'signs' (1:22).

Wisdom communicated itself in those days with 'lofty words' (2:1) and 'plausible words' (2:4), that is, in the rhetorical (persuasive) style of speech familiar to the Hellenistic world. On the one hand Paul seems to have been poor at such an approach (2:3-4). On the other hand, he is proud of this inability for what he has to say (the gospel of the crucified Christ) is not an argument to be presented persuasively ('so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God', v.5) but a 'demonstration of the Spirit and of power' (v.4).

Picking up the flow of Paul's themes developed in this and the previous chapter, he is saying that the pitiful weakness of a crucified man (and an obscure resident of Palestine on the edge of the empire at that) is 'foolish' for Greeks (1:23 etc) and a 'stumbling block' to Jews (1.23 etc) has no power in the usual way of persuasion to persuade hearers of the gospel that on the cross true wisdom lies and in the cross is the greatest sign of God at work in the world. No, the effectiveness of preaching the gospel lies with the Spirit's power to convict hearers that truth lies in the 'mystery of God' at work in Jesus Christ crucified rather than the opposite (e.g. if Jesus were a great philosopher in the mode of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and a miracle worker in the style of Elijah and Elisha).

Understanding this, Paul goes on to say, Jesus Christ is the actual wisdom from God (1:30; 2:6-7).

What then follows in the passage, 2:9-12 (and 2:13-16) is an account of how God's truth is discovered: God reveals it (2:7, 10); the Spirit of God is the agent of revelation (2:10-13); the Spirit is able to reveal because only the Spirit of God 'comprehends what is truly God's' (2:11).

Note how the emphasis falls in this passage on truth being a gift from God, enabled by God and made available by God according to God's timing. On this matter Paul would have been in accord with his Jewish readers/hearers but out of sync with his Greek hearers/readers whose Hellenistic background assumed 'wisdom' was discoverable by insightful human intellectual exploration.

Much more could be said on this passage. One specific point of reflection would be to consider what this passage says to the church today about communicating the gospel. To offer one tiny illustration of where such reflection might go: is the church tempted to think that its problems with communication of the gospel are about getting the right advertising agency involved in marketing the gospel? If so, to what extent is an "advertising agency involved in marketing" a 21st century equivalent of 1st century Hellenistic philosophers plying their rhetorical (persuasive) trade?

Matthew 5:13-20

[NB A downside to following the lectionary is that allowing for the presentation of Jesus last Sunday (thus drawing on the only gospel reading which can apply, a reading from Luke 2) and using Matthew 5:1-13 on All Saints Day (this year, 2 November) we end up with an interrupted reading of the gospel. Two weeks ago we were setting off on Jesus' mission after his baptism (Matthew 4).

Now we have dived into the Sermon on the Mount without a Sunday to reflect on how the sermon begins, Matthew 5:1-12, and what that beginning says, especially what it says in terms of setting the tone for what follows (e.g. the theme of blessing, the unexpectedness of who is blessed and thus preparing us for the 'upside down' ethical world of the kingdom of God).

We also miss the setting in which Jesus draws his disciples aside yet we must compare this with what we learn at the end of the Sermon, that the crowds 'were astounded at his teaching' (7:28): thus is a tension created which the church has wrestled with ever since: is the high demands of the Sermon for all Christians or for a more select group (e.g. those called to monastic orders)].

Once again we are in biblical territory where many themes are densely packed into a few verses. We could easily preach a whole sermon on being salt of the earth (v. 13) or light of the world (v.14-15) or the relationship between good works (v. 16) and faith. Books get published on the meaning of 5:17-20 in respect of Jesus' understanding of the importance and continuing relevance of the Law of Moses for Christians living in the age of a new covenant with God.

Perhaps more so than other weeks, the few following remarks make no pretence to offer a route of avoidance of effort looking up a decent commentary or three!

What we might usefully consider as one reflection on this passage is to ask a question about what is at stake here.

Jesus has begun the task of bringing the kingdom of God into the world (or, if you prefer, bringing the world into the kingdom of God). He has preached the gospel of the kingdom and enacted kingdom business: that is, whether we think of the kingdom as the intimate (and immanent) reign of God over the affairs of the world, or as the restoration of creation, Jesus has announced that reign is at hand and has begun to restore creation through healings and deliverance (4:17-25).

Now in this wide-ranging sermon Jesus addresses the question of how those in the kingdom (disciples who have responded to Jesus' call to follow him) should live. Kingdom living, by implication from chapter 4, will be life lived which demonstrates the rule of God over disciples and which lives out the original vision of creation of humanity being in loving harmony with one another.

Even just a few living in this way will be like salt in food: its presence makes a difference to the food. A little light (even a few disciples living in the kingdom way) destroys a lot of darkness. Living saltily and lightfully will draw people to praise God.

We could pause right here in our sermon and ask of ourselves as well as of our hearers, Does anyone in our community/workplace/sports club know that we are Christians? What is different about our lives which demonstrates the rule of God over us and which offers a sign of creation being restored?

In similar vein we could tackle 5:17-20 (on which, we remember, books have been written). If we go back to what the 'law or the prophets' (v. 17) were about, they were not about Israel living by a random set of strange rules, the stranger the better for demonstrating how faithful Israel was to a strange God. No! They were on about Israel living in a fallen world a community life in which people sought to live harmoniously with one another while honouring the rule of God over their lives, with the plus that some rules provided for ways of restoration (of people to God and to one another) when things went wrong). The prophets often made the point that one other thing could go wrong with trying to live in this way: the rules might be misunderstood so that the comparatively tiny ones (e.g. about the finer points of ceremony) could outweigh the actually important ones (like living justly and treating others mercifully).

With this in mind we could understand 5:17-20 in this way: Jesus is saying that the vision for life underlying the law and the prophets was his vision too. Accordingly he has not come to change anything about the law and the prophets as they relate to living under God's rule and to living in harmony with one another. We need to put those italicised words into the picture because clearly Jesus did change some rules (e.g. about clean/unclean foods).

What we then find Jesus doing in 5:21 and following is not undo the law but to intensify it. Looking ahead to just one such treatment, re murder, 5:21-22, Jesus affirms that murder is wrong (it dishonours God who has made each of us equal in his sight; it (obviously) breaks harmony in society) and then goes beyond that. Hatred of another also dishonours God and disrupts social harmony.

Back to 5:13-20. Jesus can end this section by saying the disciples' righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (see also 'You must be perfect' at the end of chapter 6) because life in the kingdom is no less a vision for living under the rule of God and for living in harmony with one another than the vision that drives the scribes and the Pharisees to live as they do.

What is (and could or should be) interesting about the weeks ahead in Matthew's Gospel is asking the question, what difference does Jesus make to these two ways to live out the same vision?

1 comment:

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