Friday, January 28, 2022

February 13, 2022 - 6th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [757]

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; I Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

The wisdom of God presents people with two Ways, fruitful or barren,  blessed or woeful, with faith or without.

Jeremiah 17:5-10. 

This passage in Jeremiah deals with the human heart. 

However, it takes a dim view of that organ of thought and volition.  The human heart is mostly devious, devoted to accumulating wealth, and naturally tends to trust human goods rather than divine guidance.  This tendency of the heart repeatedly leads people to a choice between two ways of living. 

The main part of our reading (verses 5-8) is a typical wisdom pronouncement, contrasting  a cursed one with a blessed one.  (The Hebrew is singular, which most English translations keep; NRSV makes it plural, for gender-sensitive reasons.) 

The curse is pronounced on the one “who relies on human strength / whose heart turns from Yahweh” (verse 5, New Jerusalem Bible).  Such a one becomes like a twisted and dry desert shrub.  The blessing is pronounced on the one who trusts in the Lord.  Such a one “is like a tree planted by water,  …in the year of drought it is not anxious, / and it does not cease to bear fruit” (verse 8, NRSV).  This contrast between the curse and the blessing sets out two ways for the human pilgrimage. 

The wisdom saying in verse 9 declares pessimistically that the human heart is a very treacherous thing, perverse beyond all understanding.  In Hebrew these words remind the hearer of the trickery of the ancestor Jacob, for the word for “devious” or treacherous is ‘aqob, root of the name ya‘aqob, Jacob. 

In our total passage, these wisdom teachings have been given a new context.  At the beginning stands the formula for a prophetic oracle:  “Thus said the Lord,”  making God (instead of a sage) the declarer of the wisdom presented here.  And even more importantly, at the end God declares God’s own activity as the only hope for humans caught in the perversity of their hearts:  “I the Lord test the mind / and search the heart, / to give to all according to their ways, / according to the fruit of their doings” (verse 10, NRSV).   

There are two ways:  to trust in human things or to trust in God, and God knows the innermost ways of the heart that chooses between them. 

Psalm 1. 

The Psalm reading is, if anything, a more profound statement of the wisdom taken up in the prophetic passage. 

Here also there are two ways.  One is the way of the person who avoids the walkings, standings, and sittings of wicked and scoffing folks, for this “happy” one’s life is saturated in torah meditation.  The other is the way of those wicked ones and sinners who have no roots, are blown around like chaff in the wind, and who end up wandering lost in the desert (the meaning of “perish” in verse 6, NRSV). 

Whereas the prophetic passage talked generally of the blessed as those who “trust in” the Lord, the psalm identifies specifically how one accomplishes this trust, namely, by constant meditation on the Lord’s torah (or Torah).  The repetition of the torah day and night shapes the human heart, directs its thought and volition. 

Happy are those who have the torah as the way of their life! 

I Corinthians 15:12-20. 

The Epistle reading continues in First Corinthians 15, where Paul elaborates the Christian affirmation of the resurrection.  He has just reviewed the core of the gospel message about the death and resurrection of Jesus and those who were granted appearances of the risen Jesus.  Now he puts the great either-or of Christian faith in terms of the resurrection of Jesus. 

The argument of the passage is not very difficult.  Those who think there is no resurrection in general are proven wrong by the resurrection of Jesus.  The resurrection of Jesus – the content of the gospel and the personal experience of the leading apostles – is the given fact.  Without the resurrection there would be nothing.  “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…. If for this life only [with no expectation of our own resurrection] we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”  (verses 17 and 19, NRSV). 

Having pursued this negative hypothesis, he returns to the faith:  “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (verse 20). 

The proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus opens two ways for the hearers:  a new life of forgiveness and empowerment with spiritual gifts, or a continuance of futility and condemnation. 

Luke 6:17-26. 

In the Gospel reading Jesus presents two ways now at work in the world of his hearers. 

This is Luke’s account of the opening of the great sermon Jesus delivered early in his Galilee ministry – the sermon which is more famous in its Matthew version as the Sermon on the Mount.  In Luke’s version it is a Sermon on the Plain, delivered on “a level place” (verse 17, NRSV).   

In both Gospels this sermon begins with a set of pronouncements concerning the “blessed,” which later tradition has called the Beatitudes (from the Latin word for blessings).  

Matthew has nine “blessings,” all except the last expressed in the third person:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit … Blessed are those who mourn…”  Luke has only four blessings, but these are followed by four “woes,” each of which is the opposite of one of the blessings.  Also, Luke’s blessings and woes are addressed directly to the hearers in the second person:  “Blessed are you poor, … woe to you who are rich …” 

In both versions of the Sermon these beatitudes (and woes) stand at the beginning of a much longer presentation of the new way of life taught by the Lord.  The beatitudes stand to Jesus’ teaching as the Ten Commandments stand to Moses’ teaching at Sinai.  (This is particularly clear in Matthew, where Jesus is presented as a new Moses and the Sermon on the Mount is the beginning of his work for the new Israel.)  These beatitudes, like the ten commandments, are the first, most fundamental bullet-point statements of God’s will for the people, and their meanings are developed further in the rest of the Sermon(s) and Jesus’ other teaching. 

It should be clear that the Sermon announces a revolution in the human condition, and this revolution is the basic content of Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of God. 

The people are told that, given the crisis of the time, the fortunate people are the poor, the hungry, those who have cause to weep, and those righteous ones who are hounded and harassed by the mighty.  These are fortunate because everything is about to be turned over, revolved from top to bottom. 

Which means that the folks who are fortunate in the present world are in trouble.  Woe is in store for the rich, for the full, for those who laugh, and for those who have prestige and status.  They have already had their rewards, and they are about to experience first-hand what others have been going through all this time:  poverty, hunger, sadness, and persecution. 

This is the Jesus-reign Manifesto, the good news prepared for by the prophetic promises to Israel, by the reforming work of John the Baptist, and by the empowerment of God’s Spirit to launch Jesus’ mission to the people who have waited – both Judean people and the peoples of the nations. 

Jesus proclaims that people have two ways available to them, but the two are about to be radically interchanged. 


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