Tuesday, January 28, 2020

February 16, 2020 - 6th Sunday after Epiphany

                                  Biblical Words                                       [645] 
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8;  I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37. 
God’s law aims to bring God’s people to maturity, to grown up choices and conduct. 
Deuteronomy 30:15-20.  
Deuteronomy is the final speech (or speeches) of Moses to the Israelites at the end of their 40-year wilderness sojourn. 
The dates given in the scroll have Moses delivering these speeches during the eleventh month of the fortieth year after the exodus. (Deuteronomy 1:3, the speeches begin  on the 1st day of the eleventh month of the 40th year; 34:8, the Israelites mourn for Moses for 30 days, the whole 12th month; Joshua 4:19 and 5:10 show Joshua leading the people into the land in the first month of the 41st year.  Thus the speeches of Deuteronomy fill the eleventh month.) 
The whole of Deuteronomy is a sustained argument that it is urgent for the Israelites to keep the law when they live in the promised land.  This is not simply a restatement of the law; this is intense and powerful preaching!  It is full of passion urging the people to love God – which means here, as in ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties, to keep the stipulations of a covenant between an overlord and subordinate beneficiaries. 
Scholars have long recognized that the actual historical situation in which Deuteronomy was a powerful political and religious force was the time of Josiah’s reform in Judah in the 620’s BCE.  The core of Deuteronomy, at least chapters 12-28, was the foundation for a constitutional convention held by Josiah in the year 622.  This core, called the “scroll of the Torah” (“book of the law,” NRSV of II Kings 22:8), was explained to the world as having been found during a renovation of the temple, and the makers of Josiah’s reform proclaimed it as the ancient and authentic law of Moses, lost during all those centuries of rule by unfaithful kings of Israel and Judah (II Kings 22:8-23:3).  As some have observed, what are really revolutions often claim to be reforms, that is, returns to an older and truer state of justice or political correctness.  So it was with Deuteronomy in Josiah’s days.
Our reading is a paragraph from the intense peroration that concludes Moses’ speeches (or specifically the speech that begins in 29:1).  This paragraph seeks to sum up the challenge in one or two final dichotomies:  “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (verse 15, NRSV); “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life... loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (verses 19-20). 
This fits as spoken to all the Israelites about to enter on their great adventure in the given land – where keeping that land as well as flourishing in it depends on obedience to the torah (“law”). 
The same urgent speech fits the time of Josiah – where turning back to Yahweh and regaining independent power in the world of nations depends on obeying the torah, particularly those parts of the torah that prohibit non-Israelite religious practices and require all religious service to be centralized at the Jerusalem temple. 
At a critical historical moment, the urgent speech of Deuteronomy marked a great either/or in Israel’s life with its Lord, Yahweh.  Later generations returned repeatedly to this challenge as the word of the Lord, driving always toward continual reform and renewed love of the Lord. 
Psalm 119:1-8. 
The Torah reading – as also the Gospel reading – concentrates on God’s law as the direction for life.  The Psalm reading is a selection from a great composition embodying deep devotion and love for God’s law. 
A psalm of torah devotion.  (I repeat here the introduction to this psalm used for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost in Year C.)  
The 119th psalm, all 176 verses of it, is a kind of on-going polyphonic fugue.  It is an alphabetic acrostic, each group of eight verses beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet – from aleph to taw.  The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each receiving eight lines of verse, produce the 176 verses of the psalm. 
Each group of eight verses also presents its praise of and devotion to God’s instruction, torah, by using a set of synonyms for torah that are repeated throughout the psalm. 
Each of the twenty-two stanzas uses most of these words for God’s law – the terms (in NRSV translation) are law, decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, and ordinances.  These seven are used, in this order, in our reading, verses 1 through 8.  Verse 8 repeats the term statutes, already used in verse 5, instead of using another synonym of the group such as dabar, word (used in verse 9), or imrah, word or promise (used in verses 11 and 38).  
(Our reading is the aleph stanza, every line beginning with the silent Hebrew consonant corresponding to A in the Roman alphabet.) 
The first word of this stanza, and thus of the psalm, is ’asherey, “happy are” (“blessed,” in old translations).  This is the same term as the first word of the whole Psalter, and corresponds to the opening words of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  
Blessed, fortunate in the eyes of others, are those who walk in the law of the Lord – who have, therefore, chosen “life and prosperity.”  Mostly the verses make declarations of this good fortune, but there is also a note of appeal for divine help in seeking to be wholly faithful to the torah (“O that my ways may be steadfast... do not utterly forsake me,” verses 5 and 8). 
This is the devotion of those who have chosen life – and become mature in the faith. 
I Corinthians 3:1-9. 
The Epistle reading is not directly about devotion or obedience to the law.  It is about growing up – about becoming mature in the way of life offered through the new revelation of God’s grace and will. 
In the early stages of Paul’s work with the Corinthian believers they were children in the faith.  “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (verse 1, NRSV).  The main sign of their continued immaturity is their divisiveness, their competing parties within the larger community.  “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?  For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (verses 3-4).  
The choice, the challenge, Paul puts before the Corinthians is to take a proper view of their status before God.  Founding missionaries and talented teachers are not embodiments of God’s presence, not themselves objects of devotion.  They are servants.  It is God to whom everyone belongs – not even Christ ultimately, who always leads back to God.  “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (verse 7). 
Maturity in the faith is seeing beyond all the immediate and short-term circumstances and leaders; it is seeing the work of God in the big picture and joining in the choice of life and the common good (“a common purpose,” verse 8). 
Matthew 5:21-37. 
The third reading from the Sermon on the Mount is directly and in detail about the Law. 
In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus repeats commandments and precepts from the Torah and contrasts his own teaching with them.  Sometimes he intensifies the Torah’s requirement – anger and not just murder, lust and not just adultery.  Sometimes he extends the Torah requirement in wholly new directions – non-resistance to enemies instead of an eye for an eye (next week’s reading).  
Today’s reading is Jesus’ reinterpretation of three of the Ten Commandments.  The Commandments addressed are from the “second tablet,” as tradition organized the ten.  They are:  You will not murder, you will not commit adultery, and you will not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Murder.  “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’...” (verse 21, NRSV).  The NRSV here, in Exodus 20:13, and in Deuteronomy 5:17, correctly translates “murder,” not simply “kill.”  (The Hebrew verb used in the commandment “specifically denotes the killing of a fellow countryman,” quote from V. Maag in Koehler-Baumgartner, The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Study ed., 2001, page 1283.)  All of the last five commandments of the Decalogue concern crimes against community members:  murder, adultery, theft (kidnapping), false witness in court, and coveting the neighbor’s household. 
Jesus says, the letter of the law is not enough.  Not just the action of murder, but what leads to the crime is the violation of God’s commandment.  Cain (in Genesis 4) became intensely jealous, leading to anger – also being warned by God that this is how Sin works – and then to murder.  This whole chain, says Jesus, is what must be headed off.  Not murder itself, but anger that causes all kinds of strife in the community.  That is the offense against God. 
The anger may take three forms:  simple anger against a brother or sister, insulting a brother or sister, or declaring “You fool!” to a brother or sister (verse 22).  Resolving conflicts with fellow community members must take priority even over doing religious devotions (verses 23-24), and incidentally is to one’s own advantage (verse 25). 
Adultery.  Jesus quotes what is usually called the Seventh Commandment, prohibiting adultery, and immediately  transposes it into a prohibition of lust.  If you have lusted after a woman, you have already committed adultery in your heart (verse 28).  This is followed by advice to do violence to oneself if one has evil inclinations:  tear out your right eye if it contemplates evil action, or lop off your right hand if it is inclined to sin (verse 30).  This advice is motivated by fear of hell fire, at least as second generation believers in Syria heard Jesus saying it. 
The adultery commandment is extended to the related topic of divorce (verses 31-32).  The rule in Matthew’s churches is that no divorce is allowed – except for sexual unfaithfulness (Matthew’s clause, as opposed to Mark’s and probably Jesus’, see Mark 10:2-12).  But even if divorce is allowed, remarriage is not.  (“...whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” verse 32.)  You can get out of a bad marriage, but the woman cannot get into another without sin.  So it was in the Jesus communities in Syria sixty years after Jesus’ death. 
Swearing Falsely.  The Ninth Commandment was about swearing under oath during judicial procedures.  The prohibition was against swearing to a lie, robbing some party of their justice.  Jesus really doesn’t treat the issue of justice; he focuses only on oath taking as such. 
To take an oath was something like, May God do so-and-so to me if I am not telling the truth.  The Jesus of the Sermon sees this as an infringement on the holiness or reverence of God.  Don’t do it.  Don’t swear either by your own head (“May I be decapitated if ...”?) or even by the sacred city Jerusalem (“May Jerusalem fall into ruins if ...”). 
Jesus’ alternative is:  Keep it simple!  “Let your words be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (verse 37). 
The Torah – the Law – is a guide to grown-up behavior by those who have committed themselves to seek and serve the will of God. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

February 9, 2020 - 5th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                            Biblical Words                                                 [644]
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20. 

God seeks authentic devotion and life, from God’s Spirit as well as from God’s Law. 
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12).  
The prophetic text speaks of a people who appear to know the Lord and delight in God’s instruction (verses 1-2).  They have fasted, they have performed rituals of contriteness, but in their view God has not responded as God should!  
Perhaps the deficiency is on God’s side rather than their own?  
The divine reply indicts them for hypocrisy – “you serve your own interest on your fast day” (verse 3, NRSV).  
On their holy days they pursue quarrels.  That is, they pursue court cases that can be processed only when all the clans are gathered at a religious assembly, mixing greed and party conflict with days of devotion and divine service. 
God contrasts such deceitful conduct with a true service of the Lord:  
Is not this the fast that I choose:  
      to loose the bonds of injustice, 
      to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free, 
      and to break every yoke?  
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, 
      and bring the homeless poor into your house; 
when you see the naked, to cover them, 
      and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  (verses 6-7)
So, after three generations of Babylonian exile, when the religious assemblies in backwater Judah became rowdy and unseemly, the prophet heard God requiring something different of the people.  The prophet heard God requiring a truer reflection of the divine model. 
A truer expression of the divine image would be compassion for the downtrodden and abandoned.  
Psalm 112:1-9 (10).  
The psalm reading is one of two little alphabetic acrostic poems spun out by the devotion of the teachers and students of a Jerusalem school (the other is Psalm 111).  
The ten verses of this poem, after the opening Hallelujah, contain one line for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Mostly, the poem is a devotional arrangement of twenty-two clichés memorized in school exercises.  
The thought achieved in this arrangement of the letters is a contrast between the righteous person (the ṣaddîq, verses 4b and 6b) and the guilty (traditionally “the wicked,” the rāshā‘, verse 10).  (NRSV, for gender reasons, uses plurals in place of the Hebrew singulars throughout.)  
The righteous one will prosper:  be a hero (gibbôr, verse 2a) and have wealth – and therefore be in a position to help others through lending (without interest) and enforcing justice (verse 5).  Such a person will have longevity, be reliable, be well remembered, and “will look in triumph on their foes” (verse 8b).  
Our reading focuses almost exclusively on this character and destiny of the righteous one.   We could almost omit the succinct statement about the opposite number, the guilty (or “wicked”) described in verse 10.  
The fate of the guilty is there to complete the contrast between the true and the inauthentic among the religious folks.  
I Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16).  
This reading has two parts:  
Verses 1-5 reviews how Paul conducted his preaching when he first came to evangelize the Corinthians.  
“I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  (This refers back to the “Logos of the Cross” which he has just recited in 1:18-31.)  “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.  (Emphasis added.)  This is a transition to another of Paul’s “topics,” another speech Paul needed to give, in various settings and at various lengths, in his preaching and teaching.  
Verses 6-16 are a version of the topos of Charismatic Wisdom, that is of wisdom given only by the Spirit.  
Paul came without flowery speech of worldly wisdom, but now he wants to insist that there IS also a “mature” teaching about the gospel.  “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age…” (verse 6).  The true wisdom of God is hidden, except from those to whom the Spirit of God reveals it.  
This topos also begins and ends with quotations from scripture.  Verse 9 is Paul’s variation on Isaiah 64:4, and the concluding verse 16 is a variation on Isaiah 40:13.  Both quotations refer to “what no eye has seen …” and to “the mind of the Lord,” which no human knows. 
In this Topic Paul insists that the divine spirit reveals to God’s chosen ones the mysteries of creation, election, and the present work of salvation.  
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.  And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (verses 12-13, NRSV).  
This is an audacious claim for the charismatic revelations that came to the early followers of the Jesus movement!  (This topic is pursued at length in chapters 12-14.)  But in this passage, it is clear that Paul was sure they had unqualified inside knowledge about God’s own mysterious being and the course of salvation that was unfolding among the Corinthian believers. 
And they had this knowledge because the Spirit had spoken such things to them.  This charismatic knowledge was not subject to criticism by ordinary human reason.  Only God could judge the charismatic revelation:  
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them…  Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.  (2:14-15.)  
The “mature” teaching of the believers was accessible only as a gift of the Spirit, which the Corinthians had to grow up to – to finish their diet of milk before they went on the solid food (3:1-3). 
The Spirit finally distinguishes between the authentic gospel and its fancy, if not deceptive, imitations. 
Matthew 5:13-20.  
The Gospel reading is the passage in which Jesus insists more strenuously than anywhere else that he stands in unbreakable continuity with the Law of Moses.  The only contrast is that Jesus’ righteousness goes even further than that of the custodians of the Law.  
The whole passage begins with two famous contrasts about the presence of good in the world:  
·        Salt enhances food, unless it is diluted and has lost its savor.  
·        A lamp is useless in a hidden place; it is to be out in the open and held up high, so “it gives light to all in the house” (verse 15, NRSV).  
The implications of these two sayings is that Jesus followers have to be conspicuous, they have to get up and out, on the move.  They have to speak up, make a public appearance, taking whatever consequences may follow (see 5:11).  
The Law.  
The rest of our reading is Jesus’ affirmation of the endurance of the Judean Law.  “This is perhaps the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in the Gospel” (Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 1993, p. 46).  The difficulty is that, in the long run, the Judean Law cannot be binding on Jesus’ followers. 
There are three statements, each apparently very emphatic – yet each with an ambiguous loop-hole.  
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (verse 17, NRSV). 
The loop-hole here is, What does it mean to “fulfill” the law?  
I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (verse 18).  
The loop-hole here is what does “until all is accomplished” mean? 
Whoever annuls [NRSV margin] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (verse 19).  
The loop-hole here is how one can be least or greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  
If the apparent meaning of these sayings had been strictly adhered to by subsequent Christians, it could only have produced a Christian pharisaism in competition with the Rabbinic kind – which would have guaranteed that Christianity would never have conquered the Roman empire.  
Nevertheless, the rhetorical effect of this very Judean-oriented passage insists that Jesus followers do not reject the Law.  And the last verse of the passage (verse 20) goes even further:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 
What a heavy challenge, aiming the new faith toward a religious elitism that would have guaranteed its remaining a Judean sect.  
Somewhere between this extreme statement on one end and the “great commission” (“teaching the nations to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Matthew 28:20) on the other end, a new Christian reading of the Torah came into being.  
The many contrasts that Jesus presented to the disciples began with the sharp one between the righteousness of the Law and the righteousness of the Messiah (the Christ).  
The Christians resolved this tension by living it out in their everyday lives!  

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

February 2, 2020 - 4th Sunday after Epiphany.

                                                            Biblical Words                                                [643]
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15;  I Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12. 
God requires a reversal of human goals, so the poor and the meek will inherit the ultimate blessings.  
Micah 6:1-8.  
This prophetic reading presents Israel, the favored people of the Lord, challenged to remember God’s past salvation and to become absolutely clear about God’s bottom-line requirement of the people.  
Recent scholars have called the scene presented in this passage a covenant lawsuit.  God the superior partner, who has given protection, lands, and benefits, has expectations of the dependent partner.  If these expectations are not met, God summons a hearing to indict the guilty partner, and argues his case (through the prophet). 
While such a lawsuit is not complete here, we do have the following:  
·        a summons on a cosmic level to hear God’s charge against the people (verses 1-2), 
·        a speech of God to the people reminding them of the saving deeds from exodus to conquest of the land, for which they are expected to be grateful (verses 3-5),  
·        and – not an obvious part of a covenant lawsuit – a speculative inquiry about what one should present to God as a pleasing offering (verses 6-7).  
The answer to this speculative inquiry is the punch line of the passage, if not of the entire book.  What does the Lord require of you?  
The answer:  to do justice (mishpāt), to love kindness (hesed), and to walk very carefully with one’s God.  
(The word usually translated “(walk) humbly” occurs only here, and its meaning is not clear.  Recent proposals for translating it include “cautiously,” “carefully,” “wisely,” and “reasonably.”  The Greek translation gives, “…be prepared to walk with your God.”)  
Noteworthy here is that the recitation of God’s saving actions comes before the question of God’s requirements.  That is, salvation precedes God’s requirements, grace precedes works.  
Originally there was the exodus, out of which came the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (verse 4); then there was the enemy king Balak of Moab, who tried to destroy Israel in the wilderness (verse 5a); and then there was the progression from Shittim to Gilgal (verse 5b), which is the entry into the promised land (related at length in Joshua 1-6).  There is no mention of the sacred mountain, of God’s giving the law or making a covenant.  After the saving acts have established the favored people in the land comes the question of what such a people should present to God.  
It might be expected that such a fortunate people, settled in a prosperous land, should present generous gifts from their possessions.  Animals from their flocks, oil from their olive groves, even firstborn children to be dedicated to the Lord (verses 6-7) – such would be acceptable gifts to return to God.  
But the punch line here is a sweeping declaration that no amount of sacrifices and produce from the land will satisfy what God requires.  One cannot buy acceptance before God.  
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; 
      and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, 
      and to walk humbly with your God? (verse 8, NRSV).
God’s requirement is for justice, kindness (mercy), and readiness to walk with God.  What God requires of the people is not wealth, or status, or power, but a shaping of one’s attitude and behavior within one’s community – toward the common good.  
Psalm 15.  
The Psalm reading also tells what the Lord requires of faithful followers.  
The opening cry is a question to God.  “Who may abide in your tent?”  That is, who may have access to the Lord’s palace – the temple – to plead a case or present gifts of gratitude?  The answer is a succinct list of the qualities and actions of the acceptable person.  Such a list is what scholars call an entrance liturgy.  
It is striking how many of the qualities of the acceptable person have to do with speech.  As described in verses 2-4 (NRSV), this person will 
1.      “speak the truth from their heart”; 
2.      will not “slander with their tongue;” 
3.      will not “take up a reproach against their neighbors;”  
4.      will “stand by their oath even to their hurt;”  
5.      will not take interest on loans, and especially ,
6.      will not take a bribe to influence their verdict given in a court.  
Such honest and truth-telling people will be a firm foundation; they “shall never be moved” (verse 5).    
I Corinthians 1:18-31.  
In our previous reading from this letter, Paul raised the issue of divisions within the Corinthian congregation(s).  There is a Paul group, an Apollos group, and a Cephas (Peter) group, maybe even a Christ group (I Corinthians 1:11-12).  Paul will discuss this issue throughout the first four chapters of this letter. 
In our passage, Paul switches from the local details to a general discussion of status consciousness and the gospel of the Cross.  
This passage is a topos, a topic Paul had to discuss again and again, to different audiences and at different lengths, in his preaching and teaching.  The title of this topic is given at the top:  The Logos of the Cross.  
The thesis of the topos is:  “The message (Greek is “logos”) about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (verse 18, NRSV).  The topos begins and ends with scripture quotations, verse 19, quoting Isaiah 29:14, and verse 31, which is Paul’s variation on Jeremiah 9:24, both passages about God overriding human wisdom.  
There is rhetorical skill in Paul’s development of this topic.  Observe the patterns:  

Verse 20. 
Where is the wise one?  [modified]
Where is the scribe? 
Where is the debater of this age? 
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 

Verses 26-28.
Not many of you were wise by human standards; 
not many were powerful, 
not many were of noble birth.  

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; 
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 
God chose what is low and despised in the world, 
things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. 
The major alternatives in the religious world of the Corinthians stand in opposition to the gospel message, and that means believers must discover that the gospel makes entirely new expectations of them.  They will appear to be the “nothings” of the society.  But in their believing and living by the cross they will become the wisdom of God and reveal God’s expectations for all people.  
This reversal of the ways of the world, this paradoxical change in the meaning of wisdom, stands in line with the requirements of God as Jesus taught them anew in the Sermon on the Mount.  
Matthew 5:1-12. 
The Gospel reading is the opening of what is probably the most famous extended Christian statement of what God requires, the Sermon on the Mount.  This opening of the Sermon is the Beatitudes (from the Latin for “blessings”).  
In the Gospel According to Matthew Jesus is presented as re-enacting some of the critical events of the beginning of Israel.  
·        Jesus was taken to Egypt so that he could fulfill the prophecy, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matthew 2:15, NRSV).  
·        Jesus escaped the slaughter of the infants by Herod as Moses had escaped the killing of Israelite children by Pharaoh.  
·        Jesus passed through the waters of baptism (the exodus) and was subjected to temptations in the wilderness – temptations which the Israelites always fell for but which Jesus resists (Matthew 4:1-11).  
·        Jesus goes to Galilee, calls disciples, and ascends a mountain to deliver God’s word to the people, as Moses had done on Mount Sinai.  
On Mount Sinai, God’s own words gave the ten commandments, and then went on (through Moses) to further laws and requirements for the people.  The Sermon on the Mount begins with the “beatitudes.”  These are not commandments, and they are not exactly ten in number, but they stand at the beginning of all else as the Lord’s proclamation of who is truly blessed.  
The beatitudes are the statement of the behavior of those included in this new covenant community.  We may presume that these “blessed ones” are the models of Christian behavior in the churches of Syria, and perhaps especially Antioch, in the second generation of the Jesus followers.  
Who are the blessed?  
·        The poor (in spirit) – also in Luke (6:20-23).  
·        Those mourning – Luke has “those who weep.” 
·        The meek.  
·        Those hungry and thirsty (for righteousness) – the hungry in Luke.  
·        The merciful.  
·        The pure in heart. 
·        The peacemakers. 
·        Those persecuted (for righteousness).  
·        Those reviled and persecuted for the Lord’s sake – also in Luke.  
All these gentle and modest people are blessed because a great reversal is coming in their favor. 
The poor and persecuted will receive the kingdom of heaven.  The mourners and the hungry will have their conditions reversed.  The meek will inherit the land, the pure in heart will see God, and the peacemakers will be called God’s children.  
The last in the list is probably a late emphasis addressed to a seriously persecuted church.  “Rejoice and be glad, …for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (verse 12)  
These beatitudes are only the preface to the Sermon on the Mount.  That Sermon will go on to lay out at length the behavior prescribed for the people of the new community.  The blessed ones at the beginning have a head start; they already show in the world the ways of God’s people.  The rest of the nations will learn from them and in time enter into the blessings of the kingdom that is already at work in the world.  
Such was the view of Jesus’ work shaped by the Gospel writer, expressing the faith of the people of Galilee and Syria in the days of the Roman emperors.  

Monday, January 13, 2020

January 26, 2020 - 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

                                                            Biblical Words                                         [642]

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23.  

To whom does the Servant come?  The light begins in Galilee of the nations.  
Isaiah 9:1-4.  
As the Sundays of Epiphany move on, the preparation for the mission to the nations is complete and the work begins.  The prophetic reading identifies the geography of the people to whom the Servant brings good news.  
In the Isaiah passage the nature of the good news is clearer than the geography, so we will start with that message.  
The people who walked in darkness
      have seen a great light; 
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
      on them light has shined.  
You [O God] have multiplied the nation, 
      you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you 
      as with joy at the harvest, 
      as people exult when dividing plunder.  
For the yoke of their burden, 
      and the bar across their shoulders, 
      the rod of their oppressor
you have broken as on the day of Midian.  
                                    Isaiah 9:2-4 [Heb. 9:1-3], NRSV
This is a message of release from occupation by foreign troops.  
“The yoke of their [the subject people’s] burden” has been removed.  “The rod of their oppressor [slave-driver]” has been broken.  The population has increased, they are joyful, exulting as in a time of bountiful harvest or a day of great victory.  (The “Day of Midian” [verse 4] refers to Gideon’s overthrow of the Midianites who had occupied and terrified Manasseh in old frontier days – Judges 7:15-25.)  The people who lived in the dark gloom of occupation and oppression have been freed, have been enlarged and restored to well being.  
Who are the people to whom this message was addressed?  
The verse giving the geographical references (9:1 [Heb. 8:23]) has some complications in it, as different translations show.  However, the place names are relatively clear.  What they show is that we have references to lands of the northern kingdom of Israel that were conquered and occupied by the Assyrians in 733 BCE.  
The Assyrians defeated Israel and turned much of its land into Assyrian provinces named Dor, Megiddo, and Gilead.  Samaria was left in the hill country farther south as the capital of a now rump kingdom of Israel, vassal of Assyria.  The geographical references in Isaiah 9:1 – Zebulun, Naphtali, “the way of the sea,” “the land beyond the Jordan,” and “Galilee of the nations” – these places made up the three new Assyrian provinces that replaced much of the old northern kingdom of Israel.  These were the lands occupied and exploited by the Assyrian conquerors in the earlier years of Isaiah of Jerusalem.  
The language about the child born and the son given (verses 6-7) is thought by many interpreters to have referred originally to the birth or accession of Hezekiah, the son of that king (Ahaz) to whom the Emmanuel prophecy was given (Isaiah 7:11-17).  
The language imitates the oratorical and declamatory style of the court and corresponds to aspiration rather than political and military reality.... Though full of vivid imagery, the language is unspecific enough to have permitted the poem to be recycled on successive occasions.  
(Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, The Anchor Bible, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 249 and 248.)  
There is one historical occasion when the “child” part of our passage could have been “recycled” and included in an announcement of joy to the subject peoples of those occupied Assyrian provinces.  In 705 BCE the Assyrian emperor Sargon II (who had destroyed Samaria, the northern capital) died and rebellions broke out throughout the empire.  King Hezekiah of Jerusalem also rebelled, and for at least three years he enjoyed an independent hand in Judah before the new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, came down on him (in the year 701).  
Our passage could have been uttered in that period of freedom and independence, anticipating a new age of prosperity and stable rule under a divinely blessed ruler (a “wonderful counselor…prince of peace,” verse 6).  The old northern kingdom, including “Galilee of the nations,” could be freed from Assyrian rule and reunited with Judah in a new age of Solomon, whom King Hezekiah emulated (see Proverbs 25:1).  
With such a vision, the prophet sent forth a word of hope to the people who had been living for thirty years in the gloom and darkness of occupation and subjection.  
Psalm 27:1, 4-9.  
The prophecy of the light to shine out of darkness for Galilee of the nations includes the expectation of a divinely guided leader from the house of David (Isaiah 9:7).  In the Psalm reading we hear such a leader expressing his total trust in the Lord.  
The Lord is my light and my salvation; 
      whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; 
      of whom shall I be afraid?   (verse 1, NRSV) 
There will be times of threat and doubt, times when the servant will appear to be lost, but the psalmist is confident of God’s deliverance and will seek God only.  
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, 
      be gracious to me and answer me; 
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”  
      Your face, Lord, do I seek.  
      Do not hide your face from me.  
Do not turn your servant away in anger, 
      you who have been my help.  
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, 
      O God of my salvation.  (verses 7-9) 
The speaker seems aware that the servant of the Lord may appear to be abandoned, even despised and God-forsaken.  Such a destiny was anticipated for the Servant who was sent as a light to the nations (see Isaiah 49:7).  
I Corinthians 1:10-18.  
The second reading from First Corinthians in the current season speaks to a group of Jesus followers who have recently come out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge of their Lord.  
Paul has spoken of “the church” that was gathered in the metropolitan city of Corinth (I Corinthians 1:2), but that community of faith is now a few years old and contains several subgroups with varied backgrounds and experiences.  The problem of factions and divided loyalties has appeared.  Different groups identify themselves by different leaders of the new Christian movement.  “I am Paul’s,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” and “I am Christ’s” – such are the various claims Paul has heard (verse 12).  
Paul was the first missionary preacher in Corinth and could claim to be the founder of the church there.  Apollos was a popular preacher (described in Acts 18:24-28) who served the Corinthian community for some time after Paul had gone on to Ephesus for his three years of work there.  “Cephas” is the Aramaic name of Peter, who was probably not himself at Corinth, but who was famous for his leadership at Antioch and who was probably a symbol of continuity from Jesus to the Greek-speaking Jewish world in Asia and Greece.  (Those claiming that they belong to Christ may have gotten the message right – from Paul’s viewpoint.)  
Paul’s most telling comment in this passage may be his statement that “I thank God that I baptized none of you … so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name” (verse 14, NRSV).  Baptized in the name of Paul!  Hardly.  The relationships must be kept straight.  Leaders, however popular or symbolic, must be appreciated only as servants, servants of that one message about the cross, which is “the power of God” for those who are being saved (verse 18).  
Matthew 4:12-23.  
The Gospel reading presents Jesus advancing into the land where the people dwell in darkness but are about to see a great light.  
The Gospel of Mark, which Matthew is following in broad outline, mentioned only that Jesus went to Galilee and began preaching.  Matthew elaborates by adding that Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in “Capernaum by the sea in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (verse 13, NRSV).  
Using these tribal terms is old fashioned, a little like referring to upstate New York as Iroquois country.  Politically, this area hadn’t had such names in eight hundred years.  (The romance of Tobit, written around the third or second century BCE, sets its hero in Naphtali in the days of the Assyrian conquest, Tobit 1:1-9.  The story emphasizes, following the viewpoint of the book of Kings, that Naphtali in that era was a land of apostasy and unfaithfulness.) 
Matthew presents this place where Jesus’ ministry began as fulfilling the prophesy that some Jesus followers had found as they searched the scriptures for signs of Jesus.  They found the Isaiah passage about Galilee of the nations, and this prophecy became part of their message of salvation addressed to Israel and the nations. 
In this land of darkness Matthew has Jesus declare his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (verse 17).  This summary statement of Jesus’ message will shortly be expanded enormously in the Sermon on the Mount.  
But first Jesus will call some disciples as the nucleus of the new people to be gathered at the mountain.  Matthew repeats Mark’s version of calling the two sets of brothers who worked in the fishing industry (verses 18-22).  He promises to teach them to fish for people!  
Then Matthew provides a summary of all Jesus’ work in Galilee (verse 23), the work that attracted the attention of so many people, and caused the huge turnout at the Sermon on the Mount.  (In the Gospel reading next Sunday we will hear the Beatitudes, that astonishing opening of the Sermon delivered to the new people of God at the mountain.)  
But for Matthew, the key point is that Jesus brings a renewed word of God to a renewed people of God – spoken from a mountain in Galilee of the nations.