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Epiphany 6 | Ordinary Time 6, Cycle A

Within the texts designated for this coming weekend, Psalm 119 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20 depict the significant theme of the Israelite Scriptures that happiness, blessings, and security are given by God to those who live their lives in accordance with the commandments and precepts that are so frequently expressed in the Israelite Scriptures themselves. Although the happiness, blessings, and security promised in the Psalm 119 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20 texts are intended primarily for this life and for its continuation here throughout future generations rather than in terms of eternal life with God, these Psalm and Torah readings may be considered to be more specifically liberating “Good News” than are the Matthew 5:21-37 “Gospel” readings selected for this occasion.

If we look at the Matthew 5:21-37 reading without superimposing a “salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord” emphasis on it from Paul’s letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, we find in Matthew 5:21-37 stringent requirements for acceptance into God’s favor. Only in the Second Lesson, in the 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 text, do we see a Christian Gospel message in these texts. Therefore, if we wish to proclaim “Good News” this coming weekend, we shall find our starting point, not in Matthew 5:21-37, but in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
The Christian Gospel in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 is that the persons to whom Paul was writing do not belong to Paul, nor do they belong to Apollos. Instead, they belong to God. Paul and Apollos, according to Paul, work for God. The place in which they work belongs to God. The persons to whom 1 Corinthians was written belong to God. They are a result of the labor of Paul and of Apollos, and all of them belong to God. That is the Christian Gospel here. We also, as Christians today, belong to God, not to any pastor or other religious or civic leader.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Here in the concluding portion of the great “Sermon of Moses” that extends from Deuteronomy 4:44–30:20 we read about an option that Moses was said to have presented to the people before they entered the land of Israel (and perhaps in a sense before they re-entered the land after the captivity in Babylonia). They can choose to obey the commandments of the Lord, the God of Israel, to love the Lord God of Israel, to do what the Lord God of Israel says, and therefore prosper to become a large and happy nation, or they can choose to disobey the Lord God of Israel, to worship other deities, and be destroyed. We see here the great theological motif of the Deuteronomic History of Israel in its land (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings) that obedience to the Lord God of Israel results in happiness, and disobedience results in sadness, defeat, and death. Even though there are exceptions to this, at least in terms of the lives of individuals in this world, we should certainly emphasize with this text that those who call upon the name of Jesus Christ should choose to obey the commandments of God and enjoy life both here and now and eternally.

Sirach 15:15-20
The choices open to the Israelites collectively in the Deuteronomy 30:15-20 text are offered here to each individual. The choices are clear cut: life or death, fire that devours or water that cleanses and soothes. It is said to be possible to keep the commandments of the Lord, to live in accordance to them. It is wise to do that. It is foolish not to do so. The Lord has given to no one the permission to sin.

Because each of us has the choice and the free will to decide, each of us will be condemned if we sin. Perhaps this is a message that we should not fail to take seriously ourselves. Perhaps it is a message that we must proclaim to other people. As in the Mazda religion proclaimed by Zoroaster in Persia half a millennium prior to the birth of Jesus, there is no grace, no forgiveness here. Will our behavior and the behavior of those who will hear us be improved if we proclaim this message this coming Sunday? Shall we withhold grace and forgiveness for one week? Is there too much “cheap grace” and too much “easy forgiveness” in our proclamation? Not only Roman Catholic Christians but also all other Christians should consider this text and these questions together. Lectionary study groups that cross denominational lines are ideal for this.

Psalm 119:1-8
The Torah of God and obedience to the Torah of God are acclaimed dozens of times and in dozens of ways in this great psalm. We should not depreciate the value of these acclamations. Like the Israelite tradition in all of its rich fullness, ours also is one in which we love God’s Word, in all of its forms. For us also, there are benefits to be enjoyed already in this life when we live according to the guidelines of Psalm 119.

Matthew 5:21-37
Most portions of this text are unique to the Gospel According to Matthew in the Newer Testament. This text in Matthew 5:21-37 indicates some of the ways in which the Matthean church claimed its superiority over Jewish groups, especially over groups of Pharisees during the last third of the first century of the common era. It demonstrates clearly that the requirements propounded by the Matthean writers were more stringent than were the requirements of most people among the Jewish Pharisees.

It is typical of new religious groups to set stringent ethical requirements for their participants as leaders in these groups first define themselves over against their parent religious communities. As new religious groups grow in size — and partly in order that they may grow in size — they relax some of their most stringent ethical requirements. When we are aware of this, we have a better understanding of Matthew 5:21-37.

It is likely that the Jesus of history made stringent ethical demands. Unfortunately, we do not have direct access to the views of the Jesus of history. As the views of the Jesus of history have been interpreted for us through the leadership of generations of his followers, we can be certain that the leaders of the Matthean church made stringent ethical demands, because we have stringent ethical demands in Matthew 5:21-37.

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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