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Ash Wednesday, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Sorrow for sin and the way out. The occasion for the day and its assigned lessons serve to stimulate our awareness of sin as well as the need for repentance (its urgency, which relates to Sanctification and Realized Eschatology) and God’s forgiveness (Justification by Grace).

Psalm 51:1-17
A lament Psalm for healing and moral renewal traditionally ascribed to David after being condemned by Nathan for sexual transgressions with Bathsheba. Of course as we have previously noted, it is unlikely that David is the author of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). In fact some scholars conclude that references to David in the Psalms may be a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects, and so of all the faithful (Ibid., p. 521). In that sense this lament and plea for healing and renewal is our song.

The psalmist urges God to have mercy and cleanse our sin (vv. 1-4, 7, 9). Reference to being purged with hyssop in verse 7 suggests a ceremony of sprinkling such as those reported in Exodus 12:22 and Leviticus 14:51. God has no interest in sacrifice, as the psalmist notes (vv. 16-17). He adds that sin is only sin if committed against God (v. 4). Presumably ordinary guilt is not sin. A reference is made to being born in sin (suggesting the Christian doctrine of Original Sin) (v. 5) and also to being rejected by the Holy Spirit (v. 11). The psalmist proceeds to note that God desires inward truth and wisdom (v. 6). After reiterating the plea for deliverance and mercy (even from physical distress), the psalmist pleads for joy and gladness (vv. 7-9; cf. v. 12). This leads to hope for transformation that the forgiven sinner be given a new and right heart and a willing spirit. Reference to the Holy Spirit [ruach qodesh] given to the believer seems to be a reference even in this Old Testament context to God’s sustaining presence (vv. 10-11). Such a transformation will lead to evangelism (v. 13) and praise of God (vv. 15, 17).

Application: The lament invites at least two possible directions. One could focus on David’s life as a model for our own — despite the appearance of respectability he is a sinner, just like the flock (exploring our sinful sexual proclivities), and yet God used him to do great things for the kingdom and so we have the hope of doing great things (though perhaps not as great as David) for God (Sin and Sanctification). Other possibilities include helping the flock to recognize that mere guilt is not a consciousness of sin until we realize that what we have done to produce the guilt is an insult to God, and also focusing on the Holy Spirit (God’s presence), without whom forgiveness and the desire to do good, including evangelism (vv. 10-13), are worthless and will not happen (Pneumatology, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification).

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
The book reports on the ministry of a cultic prophet who did his work in the Jerusalem Temple, probably during the period of Persian domination after the return of the Babylonian exiles (539 BC–331 BC). (Some speculate that the concluding sections of the book [2:28ff] may be the work of an editor of the period of the Maccabees in the second century BC.) The book’s historical theme is the plague of locusts that had destructively descended on Israel (1:4). It is also characterized by apocalyptic/eschatological elements — references to the Day of the Lord (2:1-11, 28-32; 3:1-3, 9ff). There is an evolution in this concept from being a day of judgment, not one of salvation, to the suggestion that it is a theme of hope and salvation (3:1ff).

The text is a cry of alarm since the cataclysmic day of the Lord is coming. Reference to a great and powerful army and to the clouds of thick darkness is probably a way of talking about the plague of locusts ravaging the land (though they might just symbolize the eschatological cataclysm) (vv. 1-2). Yahweh even seems at the head of this plague in verse 11, but then the prophet abruptly changes to a more gentle tone. He proceeds to make a call to repentance by which the calamity might be averted (vv. 12-17). Fasting, weeping, mourning, and offerings in the temple are commended, but above all a repentance of the heart is exhorted (vv. 12-13, 15). Yahweh is said to be gracious and merciful (a phrase often attributed to the Lord as it is rooted in Israel’s ancient formulations of faith [Exodus 34:6; cf. Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:5]). An assembly to sanctify the people is called (vv. 15-16). These verses and the one continuing to the end of the lesson take the form of a traditional liturgy. Priests (also called “ministers [sharath] of the Lord”) are called on to weep for the people in the temple (especially in the inner court reserved for priests — between the vestibule and the altar) and urge God to spare the people, so that the truth of their commitment to Yahweh will no longer be questioned by Gentiles (v. 17).

Application: The text affords a good opportunity to call the congregation to repentance and to explain why confession of sins is part of worship, and why they both are driven by grace (the gracious and merciful God Joel describes) (Sin and Justification by Grace). There is an urgency in such repentance (Realized Eschatology).

2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
This epistle was written by Paul to address relations with the Corinthian church that had further deteriorated during the period after 1 Corinthians had been written. Chapters 10-13 of the book are so different in style and tone from the first chapters as to lead scholars to conclude that they are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4. In this text Paul is either responding to critics or writing part of a letter of reconciliation.

Paul begins the lesson by urging the Corinthians for Christ’s sake to be reconciled [katallasso, to be changed thoroughly] to God (5:20b); Christ, it is noted, became sin (assumed our sinful nature [Romans 8:3]) so that we might become the righteousness of God (5:21; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30). Justification and righteousness [dikaiosune] are here woven together. They have a similar Greek root, for justification [dikaioma] resembles the Greek equivalent for the term “righteousness.” You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.” There is much controversy in New Testament scholarship about what Paul means by “righteousness of God,” a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as not having to do with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). And so it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, and it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373). The concept of “reconciliation” in verse 20b as entailing, being thoroughly changed supports this idea. God’s righteousness, restoring our relationship with him, thoroughly changes the faithful. And even the Pauline idea of the righteousness of a righteous one being given to those who have fallen (a vicarious death) is itself a Hebrew concept; see 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 6:28; 17:22.

The apostle proceeds to urge that we not accept God’s grace in vain (6:1). Citing Isaiah 49:8 about God listening at an acceptable time, helping the faithful on the day of salvation, Paul notes that now is the moment to act (the end is near) (6:2). No obstacle will be put in the way of any believer, and so no one can rightly criticize his ministry (6:3). He accounts the suffering and persecution he has experienced in ministry (6:4-7). In antiquity, hardship and virtue were closely linked. The apostle concludes with seven antithetic clauses illustrating the hiddenness of the gospel — under dishonor, death, suffering, sorrow, and poverty (vv. 8-10).

Application: The text exhorts the faithful to appreciate the urgency of repenting, interpreted as God’s work in Christ (Realized Eschatology and Justification by Grace). Other possibilities include a sermon on the Atonement (on how Christ’s work on the Cross taking on our sin restores our relationship with God [thoroughly changes us]) or on how the Christian life is hidden (not a smooth life of prosperity, but one prone to ups and downs, to persecutions and hardships [Sanctification and Theological Method]).

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
This lesson reports another segment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, teaching practical piety. Most of the text is peculiar to Matthew and his efforts to address Jewish Christians in Antioch who were no longer in communion with the synagogue. Jesus begins with a warning against a hypocritical piety (especially doing merciful deeds; Matthew usually has the Pharisees in mind when referring to “hypocrisy”) that aims for others to notice one’s faith (v. 1). Likewise it is said to be better to give alms (gifts of charity in synagogues, the foremost act of piety in the eyes of first-century Jews) without fanfare, so that “the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing” (vv. 2-4). In a similar manner, it is said to be better to pray privately than ostentatiously in public (vv. 5-6).

After a critique of long public prayers (vv. 7-8), teaching the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13), and exhorting forgiveness (vv. 14-15), Jesus urges that fasting not be done ostentatiously so that only the Father knows (vv. 16-18). (In this era, pious Jews fasted twice a week.) Here we observe Matthew’s anti-Pharisaism coupled with a moral strategy. Jesus critiques trust in worldly goods, which are prone to destruction (vv. 19-20). In ancient times a large part of wealth consisted of costly garments liable to destruction by moths. Then Matthew has Jesus add that one’s treasure is indicative of one’s heart [kardia] (v. 21), i.e. one’s moral priorities (see 9:4; 12:34; Psalm 24:3-4).

Application: This lesson affords an opportunity to condemn the sin of hypocrisy and works righteousness that often infects the faithful. Opportunity is also given to critique the mad quest for wealth that characterizes American life (Sin and Social Ethics). By helping parishioners recognize their sin, they will be prepared for the call to repentance of the First Lesson and the word of forgiveness in the Second Lesson (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

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Author of
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Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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