Monday, January 30, 2023

February 5, 2023 -- 5th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                Biblical Words                                                 [811]

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.  
           On "topics" (topoi in Greek rhetoric), see Introduction to Romans,, 2019, April.
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!  

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