The 5th Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Psalm 112:1-9
I Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

God seeks authentic devotion and life in place of the artificial and worldly.

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). 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 in post-exilic times, when the religious assemblies became rowdy and unseemly, the prophet heard God requiring of the people a truer reflection of the divine model (the divine image) for compassion.

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 the 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 or upright person (the tsadiq, verse 4b and 6b) and the wicked (the rasha’, verse 10). (NRSV uses plurals in place of the Hebrew singulars throughout.) The righteous one will prosper: be a hero (gibbor, 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—suggesting we omit the succinct statement about the opposite number, the “wicked” described in verse 10. The fate of that figure is needed only to complete the contrast between the true and the fake among the religious folks.

I Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)

The reading from the apostle contrasts the true gospel—Christ crucified—with both flowery and eloquent statements of the gospel and with worldly wisdom.

The first paragraph of the reading emphasizes that Paul preached in plain and simple terms the gospel of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (verse 2, NRSV). “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom”—perhaps contrasting his style with that of his fellow missionary preacher Apollos, who was famous for his Alexandrian learning and powerful preaching. (See the references to Apollos in chapter 3, and the description of him in Acts 18:24-28.)

The second paragraph says there was also a “mature” teaching about the gospel, and this more advanced doctrine concerning the wisdom of God leads especially to the Spirit of God as the source of proper human wisdom.

For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 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 [the charismata]. (Verses 11-12, NRSV.)

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 that than of the custodians of the Law.

The whole passage of our reading begins with two famous contrasts about representing the cause 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 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 sequence of topics in the reading suggests that those who do get up and out will meet people of the Law. Therefore, we hear about that. Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets (these terms here clearly refer to the scrolls of the scriptures), writings which in Greek have “iotas” in them: “I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota [see NRSV marginal note], not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (verse 18).

And this applies not only to the predictions of the Messiah that Christian scribes could find in the Torah or Prophets, but also to the commandments in the Torah, about which the Pharisees cared so much: “[W]hoever 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). If this 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, our very Jewish-oriented passage insists that Jesus followers do not reject the Law, but go even further, and outdo the religious leaders of the time. “[U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 20). What a heavy challenge, aiming the new faith toward a religious elitism that would have guaranteed its remaining a Jewish 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, 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).

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