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Epiphany 5, Cycle A

God goes with us in all we do. In accord with the Epiphany season’s preoccupation with the practice of the Christian life, our lessons remind us that in all the good we do (even in our Social Ethical engagement) God goes along with us (Justification and Sanctification by Grace).

Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
This is an acrostic Wisdom Psalm (each line beginning with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet) contrasting the fate of the righteous and the wicked. Its aim is to offer instruction about the characteristics and benefits of righteous living, only tangentially (in the last verse which the assigned lesson makes optional) with punishment of the wicked. Although the author of the Psalm may or may not have had this insight in mind in the instruction this song offers, by the end of Babylonian captivity Hebraic leaders had come to understand that wisdom is rooted in God alone (Proverbs 1:7). This theme is suggested in the Psalm’s first verse. Beginning with Hallelujah (meaning “Praise the Lord”), those who fear [yare, which also connotes reverence] Yahweh and delight in his commandments are said to be happy (v. 1). The benefits of such a life are described, for they have no fear of evil (vv. 2-8). The virtues noted in verse 4, being gracious and merciful, echo those attributed to God in an ancient Hebraic confession (Exodus 34:6). Those who fear the Lord give to the poor and their righteousness endures forever (v. 9). The wicked, by contrast, see this and are angry but their desire comes to nothing (v. 10).

Application: Sermons based on the wisdom regarding Christian living based on this text (Sanctification) do well to make clear that such wisdom is rooted in God and there is not happiness, generosity, steady hearts, and boldness in face of evil, if not gifts of God (Justification by Grace). References to giving to the poor open the way for sermons on Social Ethics, but if such a sermon is developed the text demands we make clear that even such quests for justice are only possible because of God.

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
This psalm was written by Trito-Isaiah (the most recent independent literary strand of the book, likely composed late in the sixth century BC at a time after the Babylonian exiles had returned to Judah and were dealing with disappointment about the pace of recovery and restoration under Persian domination of the region). The text sings of the Lord not desiring fasting, but kindness and justice. Judah needs restoration from its plight, which is portrayed as a function of its sin and oppression of the poor.

Worshipers are first urged to shout out like trumpets and not hold back, announcing their rebellion and sin (v. 1). Trumpets were used to announce fast days (Joel 2:15). Confessing sin is a true fasting and humbling of oneself. Daily the people are said to seek Elohim, as if they practiced righteousness. They seek righteous judgment, complaining that their fasting and humbling themselves seem not to be noticed (vv. 2-3a). (A judgment of righteousness [tsedeq] connotes not judgmentalism on God’s part but deliverance [Psalm 71:2].) But they are not heard as they oppress their workers and quarrel. God rejects this (vv. 3b-5).

The Lord is said to want, instead of fasting, the loosening of the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, finding housing for the homeless, and clothing the naked (vv. 6-7). When this happens the people’s light will be seen and the glory of Yahweh will protect them. Then Yahweh pledges to answer their call (vv. 8-9a). The Lord then proceeds to promise that if the speaking of evil ends, the hungry are fed, the needs of the afflicted met, then he will satisfy their needs and make them strong as a people (vv. 9b-11). And then the ancient ruins of Israel destroyed by Babylon will rise, and God will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in (v. 12). The text seems to assert that living faithfully in the obedience described will result in the restoration of the ancient ruins of Judah and Israel destroyed by the Babylonians.

Application: The text provides occasion to focus on the theme of how that righteous God of ours delivers us, despite our dire circumstances (preachers might explore how, like the ancient Hebrews returning from Babylon, some of our basic American institutions are broken) and all our false expressions of piety. God will give the people strength to become people who take up the ministries described in the lesson (Justification and Sanctification by Grace). Another approach is to focus on the Social Ethics agenda of the lesson (caring for the hungry, homeless, and poor) as the highest form of worship in God’s sight (though not overlooking the theme that God is engaged with us in these activities).

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Dealing with a troubled church in Corinth which Paul had established (Acts 18:1-11), in this text he offers a discourse on the crucified Christ and ensuing spiritual wisdom. Paul notes that when he came to the Corinthians he did not come proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty terms or wisdom (v. 1), as the Corinthians seemed to desire. He decided, he claims, to know nothing except Christ crucified (v. 2). The apostle says he came to the Corinthians in weakness and in fear and trembling (v. 3). His speech was not plausible words of wisdom, but came with a demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that faith nurtured would not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God (vv. 4-5). In other words he claims not to have convinced anyone by the rhetoric or eloquence of his speeches, but what has been accomplished has been the work of the Spirit (of God).

Paul concedes that among the mature he will speak wisdom, though not a wisdom of the age. He speaks of God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which he decreed before the ages for our glory (vv. 6-7). The reference to glory may refer to the eschatological reality Paul and the first generation of disciples believed to be imminent. He then notes that the rulers of this age have not understood this, for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord (v. 8). He offers a quotation similar to Isaiah 64:4 that no one has seen or conceived what God has prepared for those who love him (v. 9).

Paul next states that all he has written has been revealed through the Spirit who searches the depths of God (vv. 10, 12-13). As only the human spirit knows what is truly human, only the Spirit of God knows God (v. 11). The unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, as it is all foolishness for them. But those who are spiritual discern all things (vv. 14-15). Elsewhere Paul links the Spirit and its gifts to baptism (12:13). The apostle finally quotes Isaiah 40:13 to point out that no one knows the mind of the Lord, but then proclaims that Christians have Christ (v. 16).

Application: Like the Second Lesson of the previous two weeks, we are given another opportunity to promote concentration on the crucified Christ and to help parishioners see how this gets the focus off worldly wisdom and ourselves. One focus might be to highlight with Paul that in a world which teaches us that God is found in great things and in worldly wisdom, God works in hidden and surprising ways (in order that we might find him in surprising places, like in suffering and on the Cross). The role of the Holy Spirit in revealing God, in making sense of what seems foolish about the gospel, in guiding us to make sense of life is another possible approach (Pneumatology and Sanctification). Paul’s comments in verse 9 about how we cannot know the great things God has in mind for us, that his love and goodness exceed our wisdom, is another option (Providence and Justification by Grace).

Matthew 5:13-20
The Jewish orientation of Matthew’s gospel reflects again in this report of the continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, dealing with the witness of the disciples and the relation of Jesus’ message to the Jewish Law. Jesus calls the disciples the salt of the earth, but reminds them that if the salt loses its taste it is good for nothing (v. 13). Salt was equated with compliance to the law in Hebraic thought (Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5). Likewise he calls them the light of the world, and a city built on a hill that cannot be hid (v. 14). As no one with a lit lamp puts it under a bushel basket, so Jesus urges the disciples to let their lights shine so others may see their good works (vv. 15-16). Light [or] in the Old Testament is an image to describe God (Psalm 27:1; Isaiah 60:1-3). This entails that according to Matthew’s account Jesus is contending that it is the Father, not the disciples, who is to shine. These images make clear that The Beatitudes, taught earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, do no not mandate withdrawal from the world.

Jesus next claims that he has not come to abolish the law and prophets, for he comes to fulfill them (v. 17). Not one letter will be abolished from the law, he adds (v. 18). Consequently, whoever breaks a commandment will be least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom (v. 19). The people’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom (v. 20). Only in Matthew’s version does this discussion of Jesus’ relation to the law and a concern with righteousness emerge, not surprising given the author’s overall Jewish orientation. Consequently, we should take our bearings from Jewish conceptions in understanding the key concepts. References to the law [nomos] of course should be construed in terms of the Hebraic concept of torah, which is not intended as a judgmental, condemnatory decree but regards the law as instruction or guide for life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2). And the references to righteousness [dikaiosune] should also be understood in terms of the Hebraic concept of tsedeq. To be sure Hebraic righteousness was related to right conduct according to God’s will. However, Old Testament scholars have noted that righteousness is not so much measured in Hebraic thinking by conformity to some absolute claims but rather in terms of relationship to God. As noted above in the analysis of the First Lesson, righteousness to the Hebrew mind might also be conferred on the believer by God, something given, not earned (Genesis 15:6; Psalm 71:2; cf. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff).

Application: Preachers could use the text to explicate what it means to be salt of the earth, encouraging the faithful to live this way — a life adhering to God’s will (Sanctification). At the same time or independently of the image of being salt of the earth, the lesson affords opportunity to explain (in anticipation of next week’s theme) the role of the law (God’s commandments) in the Christian life. But in either case, it is crucial to make clear that for Matthew and his Jesus the law is not so much a set of demands that condemn us as they are guides for life which God’s grace (his presence) makes possible to be manifest in our lives. By this grace, not by what we do, we are made righteous (a righteousness superior to the very best humans can accomplish on their own) and saved.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen