The 6th Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
I Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

God’s law or instruction 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 wilderness sojourn. The dating indicated in the final framework of the Deuteronomic work has Moses delivering this book 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 12th month; Joshua 4:19 and 5:10, Joshua leads the people into the land in the first month of the 41st year. The speeches of Deuteronomy fill the eleventh month.)

The whole of Deuteronomy is a long sustained argument for the urgency of the Israelites keeping 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. (See Bernard Levinson’s introduction to Deuteronomy in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed. of 2010.)

Thus the imaginative situation of Deuteronomy is Moses’ graduation address to the Israelites, delivered just as they are about to enter into their divine heritage. Hearers of these speeches are invited to put themselves back into the time of Moses’ great challenge to scrupulously obey the commands of this law (torah).

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, probably chapters 5-28, 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 all those centuries of rule by unfaithful kings of Israel and Judah (II Kings 22:8-23:3). As some have observed, revolutions often claim to be reforms, that is, returns to an older and truer state of justice or political correctness.

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. 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 given the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 17, 2010.) 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 verse 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?” (verses3-4).

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 became intensely jealous, leading to anger—also being warned by God’s own self 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 of 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).

Stealing. It is noteworthy that the Eighth Commandment, part of the series concerning community members, is conspicuously absent! Jesus not only does not elaborate, he makes no mention of the prohibition against stealing. (In the ancient Israelite setting this was probably against kidnapping, stealing a person. Later, of course, it was applied to other property as well.) As applied to the disciples, property concerns are addressed in the discourse on missionary work in Matthew 10. As later Christians (probably in Antioch) understood the earliest life of believers, it was said that they “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). Property concerns, such as rules about stealing, would have a different impact in that case.

Still, why didn’t Jesus say something like, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not steal.’ But I say to you that you should have all things in common, so that there is not a needy person among you” (see Acts 4:32-35). Sooner or later Christians would have to come to terms with the Eighth Commandment also, in a Jesus-like way!

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