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Epiphany 6, Cycle A

This theme is law of God and grace. This Sunday affords excellent opportunities to reflect on the role of the Ten Commandments (God’s Law) in the life of a Christian (Sanctification), though with awareness that without God’s grace the law is nothing but a curse (Sin), and that grace gives what the law commands (Justification by Grace).

Psalm 119:1-8
Another acrostic Psalm (each line beginning with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet) with this one offering a meditation on God’s Law [torah]. Though this Psalm includes a prayer to God’s help in time of trouble, these verses are a prayer for help in observing the law. The song proclaims that those who keep God’s decrees are happy [ashere] (vv. 1-3). In Hebraic thinking, happiness is related to being envied by others as blessed. And so it seems that the psalmist believes that those who keep the law are regarded by others as blessed. Then the psalmist sings of how Yahweh has commended that his precepts be kept diligently (v. 4). The psalmist prays that he would be steadfast in observance of the commandments and not be put to shame, pledging to observe the divine statutes and praising God with an upright heart (vv. 5ff).

As we have previously noted, references to the law 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).

Application: A sermon on this lesson provides occasion to clarify the proper function of the law and commands of God (Sanctification) (see preceding paragraph). But insofar as those obeying the law are said to be blessed, this insight opens the way to sermons on how obedience to the law is a gift of God’s grace (Justification by Grace).

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Like all of the first four books of the Bible, Deuteronomy is the product of four distinct oral traditions. It is primarily the work of a strand scholars have called D (the Deuteronomistic source). This strand was related to, if not rooted in, the sweeping religious reforms under Judah’s King Josiah in the late seventh century BC. This literary strand also influenced the histories of the books of Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The book’s theme is evidenced by the meaning of its title (“Second Law”). Portrayed in the form of Moses’ farewell address, it is the reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Israel. The legal tradition of the book of Exodus is reinterpreted in contemporary terms of Josiah’s 621 BC religious reforms.

This text is the conclusion of Moses’ third address, exhorting Israel to renew the covenant with warnings against disobedience. These verses are a discourse on the two ways between which Israel must decide (v. 15). Obedience to the commandments of God will lead to life, it is taught, and the people will then be blessed in the land they are to enter (v. 16). By contrast, to turn away and serve other gods will lead to destruction and loss of the land that people will cross the Jordan River to enter (vv. 17-18). Moses calls on heaven and earth to witness that he has set these options before the people. He urges that they choose life [chaiyim], loving and obeying Yahweh, so that they might live in the land of their ancestors (vv. 19-20). Life from an ancient Hebraic perspective is not the mere extension of days, but loving, obeying, and cleaving to Yahweh. The choice between the two ways that Moses offers in this lesson reminds us of the challenge offered Hebrew worshipers in ceremonies of covenant renewal (26:16–27:26).

Application: This text could also be an occasion to address the same issues noted in the application of the assigned Psalm (see above). The Hebraic understanding of life as loving and obeying God is another possible sermon direction (Sanctification). Also an appreciation of how because of sin we will not choose the way of life might be proclaimed, helping us recognize that we are so turned in on ourselves (so selfish) that we need the law and commandments to remind us how far we fall short, an insight that makes us more aware of our need for Christ.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Dealing with a troubled church in Corinth which he had established (Acts 18:1-11), in this text Paul addresses division in the Corinthian church. He claims that he could not speak to the Corinthians as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh and infants in Christ receiving milk and not solid food. They are still not ready, for jealousy and quarreling show that they are still of the flesh [sarx] (vv. 1-3). The use of this term is not a critique of the physical/bodily character of human nature. For Paul, people of the flesh are those attached to worldly wisdom and values. The Corinthians seem to be identifying themselves with either Apollos (an Alexandrian Jewish Christian, who may well have then been a proponent of allegorical reading of the Hebrew Bible, like Philo the mentor of Jewish rabbis in Alexandria [Acts 18:24-28]), who seems to have ministered in the town (Acts 19:1), or Paul. The apostle claims that this is regrettable since he is just a servant through whom the people came to believe (vv. 5-6).

Elaborating further, Paul claims he just planted and Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. Thus only God deserves credit (vv. 6-7). The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. (These wages are to be paid at the last judgment [vv. 12-15].) Paul claims that all are God’s servants working together. The Corinthians are said to be God’s field, his building (vv. 8-9).

Application: The text reminds us that squabbling and competing for power gets us centered on ourselves and so impedes spirituality. (This insight has been endorsed by recent neurobiological research on how the brain functions in spirituality and what impedes spiritual activity [Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain, pp. 131-146, 214-240].) This is an excellent opportunity to reflect with congregation members on how a greater sense of unity in the congregation might be nurtured with more concern for spirituality and the church’s ministry. Sanctification and Ecclesiology are central themes.

Matthew 5:21-37
The lesson further continues the account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, particularly his teaching on the true understanding of the law. This of course accords with the Matthean concern to relate Jesus’ ministry to the Jewish Torah for Jewish Christians in Antioch no longer in full communion with Judaism.

Jesus begins by making the point that anger with a brother or sister or insulting them makes one as liable to judgment as murder (vv. 21-22). (“Judgment” [krisis] here may refer to a local Jewish court established in every town, but it is also the term used to refer to an ultimate judgment by God. The “Council” [suned] mentioned in v. 22 is the Jewish Sanhedrin, comprised of seventy elders.) As a result, Jesus teaches that when offering a gift at the altar, if one remembers that a brother or sister has something against the worshiper, he or she should leave the altar and first seek reconciliation (vv. 23-24). Jesus’ willingness here to interrupt a cultic sacrifice was unthinkable in his context; thus with this teaching he effectively challenges cultic ideology. Likewise, Jesus urges coming to terms quickly with an accuser while on the way to court lest the judge throw the believer into prison (v. 25). Initiating the sentence in the next verse (26) with an “Amen” signifies in first-century Palestinian usage an eschatological intention behind the warning that this sin might result in imprisonment (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, p. 120).

The Lord adds that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery (vv. 27-28). (Adultery was an offense carrying the death penalty in ancient Jewish culture [Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22].) If the right eye or the right hand causes sin, it is well to tear the eye out or cut the arm off, for losing each is better than to lose the whole body in hell (vv. 29-30). Jesus rejects divorce, except on grounds of unchastity. (This stipulation to allow divorce is absent in the parallel Markan [10:11-12] and Lukan [16:18] accounts.) To marry a divorced woman is to commit adultery (vv. 31-32). This stricture was a restriction against male sexual license executed through easy divorce. New Testament scholar Eduard Schweizer points out the inherent sexism of Jewish divorce rubrics in Jesus’ day (as per Deuteronomy 24:1-4 only men could initiate divorce) and the high divorce rate in the Roman empire (The Good News According to Matthew, pp. 123-126). Jesus does not just want the faithful to avoid swearing falsely, but never to swear (vv. 33-36). Better just to let a yes be a Yes and a no be a No (v. 37). He is trying to free the flock from having to fulfill God’s commands by legal means, rather than through spontaneous service.

Application: Several possible sermon directions emerge from this text. It invites sermons on marriage (the joy of lifelong marriage could be explored) along with the tragedy of divorce (Sanctification). Jesus’ harsh judgment on it can be mollified both with an acknowledgment of his openness in this gospel to it in cases of sexual infidelity, and also his strong stand in its context as a statement of women’s equality could be emphasized (Social Ethics). Sexuality and its temptations (the sin of adultery and sex outside of marriage) are also a legitimate theme. The text also clearly condemns sin, making it clear that all of us are guilty of murder and adultery. Having made these points, the grace insights of the assigned Psalm (see its Application comments, above) and the Second Lesson (3:6-7) can be used to make clear that God forgives us (Justification by Grace).

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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