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Epiphany 4, Cycle A

God calls, equips, and keeps us in our place! The lessons remind us that in living the Christian life, struggling with sin and working for justice, the faithful are always dependent on God.

Psalm 15
This is a liturgy for admission to the temple, attributed to David, though it is unlikely that he is the author or even the agent in collecting this and other 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 song is about the present realities of faith, what constitutes worthiness to come before the Lord.

None may abide in the temple, it is sung, except those who walk blamelessly (have the requisite moral qualifications), do no slander and evil, despise the wicked, but honor those who fear [yirah, connoting "honor" or "awe"] the Lord, stand by their oath, and do not lend money for interest or take bribes. It is interesting to note the prohibition against loaning money for interest (v. 5), which may only refer to charitable loans made for the relief of distress (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-37). But since this stipulation is not made in the Psalm, we have clear indication that the psalmist does not espouse an unbridled free market; at the very least he is insisting that interest not be charged in such a way as to be detrimental to the poor.

Application: Several sermon options emerge from this Psalm. It provides an opportunity to identify our sinfulness and unworthiness to come before God, the need for him to save us. Criticism of taking interest and fleecing the poor with such practices encourages critiques of how our present economic system takes advantage of the poor that in the name of our Lord more just ways are to be found (Social Ethics). The reference to fearing God (understood as honoring him in ancient Hebrew) as fitness for admission to God’s presence opens the door to preaching on Justification by Faith, and also to an exploration of the life of faith as honoring God (Sanctification).

Micah 6:1-8
The superscript of the book indicates that Micah was a younger contemporary of Isaiah, ministering in Judah (the Southern Kingdom after the North-South split) after the prosperity of Jeroboam II’s reign and in the midst of the rising power of the Assyrian empire, leaving Judah little more than an Assyrian vassal (730 BC–710 BC). As a rural commoner (1:14), Micah was appalled by the sins of Jerusalem. This text is part of a series of laments, threats, and denunciation of all Israel.

In the genre of a covenant lawsuit against an ungrateful people, with the prophet acting as prosecuting attorney, he calls the people to hear Yahweh. He is said to have a controversy with Israel (vv. 1-2). The Lord asks what he has done to deserve such behavior, for he delivered them from slavery and provided them with Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (see Exodus 15:20 for a reference to her) (vv. 3-4). The people are told to remember how the prophet Balaam refused to curse the Israelite armies despite King Balak of Moab’s directive that he should (Numbers 22-24), and also to remember Shittim and Gilgal (the sites of Israel’s camp under Joshua before and after the crossing of the Jordan River [Joshua 3-5]) (v. 5). The Hebrew people seem to have forgotten the saving acts of old, all that God has done for them. To the question of what sort of offerings will satisfy God, a reminder reminiscent of other prophets (Amos 5:25; Hosea 2:19-20; 6:6; Isaiah 7:9; 30:15) is provided: Animal and human sacrifices (see v. 7: still practiced in Judah as noted in 2 Kings 16:3) will not do, but only to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly [tsana, also meaning lowly or prepared] with God (vv. 6-8).

Application: This text also affords opportunity to condemn our sin (often associated with forgetting all the good God has done for us in the past) as well as the importance of doing justice and loving kindness in the Christian life (Social Ethics and Sanctification). The idea of walking humbly with God suggests that we get ourselves and selfishness out of the way when living the Christian life. An appreciation of the life of humble faith as putting others (God and our neighbors) first or being prepared for and ever aware of God can afford opportunities to explore the nature of faith (Justification) and Christian life (Sanctification).

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Dealing with a troubled church in Corinth which he had established (Acts 18:1-11), Paul continues a reflection on Christ crucified. The message of the Cross is said to be foolish to those perishing, but the power of God for those saved (v. 18). Isaiah 29:14 and its threat to destroy the wisdom [Sophia] of the wise is cited (v. 19). God is said to have made foolish the world’s wisdom. God is not known through wisdom, and so he decided to save those who believe through the foolishness of proclamation (vv. 20-21).

Paul claims that Greeks desire wisdom and Jews demand signs. But instead he proclaims Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jew and Greek, but the power and wisdom of God to those who are called (vv. 22-24). God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness stronger than human strength (v. 25). Paul then has the Corinthians consider their own call, that not many of them were wise by human standards or powerful, not of noble birth (v. 26). But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, what is weak to shame the strong (v. 27). He chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. That way no one might boast in God’s presence (vv. 28-29). God is said to be the source of the faithful’s life in Christ Jesus, who became for them the wisdom of God, righteousness [dikaiousune], sanctification, and redemption in order that all boasting is boasting in the Lord (vv. 30-31; Jeremiah 9:23-24; cf. 2 Corinthians 10:17). Exactly what the concepts wisdom and righteousness connote is debatable. In the Corinthian context “wisdom” might be understood in the Greek philosophical or Gnostic sense of a spontaneous, rational insight or (especially in the case of Gnostics) secret knowledge, or it could refer to the Hebrew equivalent that connotes practical knowledge of the laws of life (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 418). (Of course, insofar as God’s wisdom confounds human wisdom it is not impossible to hear echoes of the Socratic challenge to human reason in what Paul writes at this point [Great Dialogues of Plato, pp. 426ff].) And likewise “righteousness” might be understood in the traditional Augustinian/Reformation mode as what it takes to be justified (the Greek terms for both words share the same root; see Romans 3:21-26) or in a more Hebraic sense of tsedeq, which connotes God’s loyalty to his covenant or his acts of saving and delivering his people (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, pp. 373, 376ff). The sermon will take a different tone depending on how one interprets these concepts. But the last verse of the lesson’s insistence that we not boast in anything that is our own (see reference to Socrates, above) is a theme that needs to reflect in all interpretations of wisdom and righteousness.

Application: Like the Second Lesson of the previous week, 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. In this case we might critique self-reliance (considering the implications of the critique for Social Ethics) and also focus on how Christian faith and the lifestyle it nurtures is paradoxical, confounding reason and what passes for worldly wisdom, and making us recognize our total dependence on God (Theological Method, Justification, and Sanctification).

Matthew 5:1-12
Given the Jewish orientation of Matthew’s gospel, this description of a segment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (especially The Beatitudes) is not surprising. For examples of Beatitudes/Blessings in the Old Testament, see Psalm 84:5-6, 12; Deuteronomy 28:1-6. The sermon is one of five major discourses of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. As a whole it is a kind of keynote for the new age that Jesus has come to introduce, and so The Beatitudes in this text should be understood in that light. We should also keep in mind that the Greek word for “blessed” [makarios] may be translated “happy.” Reference is made to Jesus climbing the mountain when he saw the crowds and teaching the disciples from a sitting position (typical of the position assumed by first-century Jewish rabbis) (vv. 1-2). The blessed (and so among those who are happy) include the poor in spirit, those who mourn, are meek, hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart [the heart (kardia) was considered the seat of thought and moral disposition, see 9:4; 12:34; Psalm 24:3-4, and so to be pure in heart is not to have mixed motives], the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (vv. 3-10). Those virtues listed in verses 3-4, 6, repeated in Luke (6:20-21), are likely original to Jesus, but also typical blessings of his time. Hungering for righteousness probably refers to the hope that God will bring justice to those suffering from violence (Psalm 146:7). When reviled and persecuted on Jesus’ account we are blessed (v. 11). Then we can rejoice and be glad, for our reward will be great in heaven, as such persecution is like the persecution the prophets endured (v. 12). We see here another instance of Matthew’s concern to link Jesus’ teachings with Jewish precedents. But unlike Pharisaic codes of law, The Beatitudes have an Eschatological dimension, which is both future and present oriented. They describe realities to be created by God, not virtues we have or must attain on our own. This is why when focused on Jesus we are made happy in embodying the gifts of these virtues, and that is why we are blessed.

Application: The text provides occasion for sermons on what makes us happy (living in the virtues Jesus describes [Sanctification]). But because these virtues are Eschatological realities, not ways of living that we attain on our own, they only come to us by the grace of God (Justification by Grace). Jesus’ praise for those concerned with righteousness and bringing justice to those who suffer also entails that this is a text for preaching Social Ethics and God’s role in making it happen.

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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