What God requires is a reversal of the world’s expectations, so the poor and the meek will inherit the ultimate blessings.
The prophetic reading for this Sunday presents Israel, the favored people of the Lord, challenged to remember God’s past salvation and to be absolutely clear about the essence of God’s 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, there is a summons on a cosmic level to hear God’s charge against the people (verses 1-2), there is 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—there is 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? It is 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 include “cautiously,” “carefully,” “wisely,” and “reasonably.” The Greek translation gives, “…be prepared to walk with your God.”)
It may be noted that the basic structure of the sacred history here is that God’s saving actions lead up to the point where the requirements of God are discussed. That is, salvation precedes expectations, 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), that is, the entry into the promised land, which is 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 may be expected to 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.
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 have called an entrance liturgy.
It may be noted how many of the qualities of the acceptable person have to do with speech. As described in verses 2-4 (NRSV), this person will “speak the truth from their heart”; will not “slander with their tongue;” will not “take up a reproach against their neighbors.” They also will “stand by their oath even to their hurt,” that is, will be rigorously honest. They also will not take interest on loans, and especially will not take a bribe to influence their verdict given in a court.
Such honest and truth-telling people with be a firm foundation; they “shall never be moved” (verse 5).
I Corinthians 1:18-31
The Epistle reading continues Paul’s discussion of the church, the assembly that has divisions but is based totally on the message of the cross. The opening sentence of our reading is the theme verse of this section of the letter: “For the message 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 foolishness of the gospel message is contrasted to the wisdom of the world. This was not a contrast that Paul invented. It was already in the scriptures. Paul regularly engaged in discussions based on the Jewish scriptures, and one supposes that the verse he quotes here from Isaiah (29:14) was a part of his regular repertoire. God speaking says, “I destroy the wisdom of the wise.” After a community of believers has gathered, Paul says to them, Look. How many of you are wise? That is, how many have degrees, are members of the bar, or have even gotten GEDs? (verse 26). The church is not significant because of its worldly credentials, but because of the power of God working through it to shame the wisdom of the world (verse 27).
The message of the crucified Christ is the stumbling block to both pious Jews and wise Greeks. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the nations [Gentiles]” (verses 22-23). 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. “God chose…things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are…” (verse 28). 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.
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. (To love God and neighbor, Mark 12:29-31, is the most succinct statement.) 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. After 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 statement of the behavior of those who are included in this covenant or new community of faith. 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 from the faith of the people of Galilee and Syria in the days of the Roman emperors.