The 8th Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
I Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Good news about God’s care should deliver the faithful from despair and anxiety.

These readings for the last regular Sunday of Epiphany express mainly the hope offered to those who hear the good news of God’s coming blessing. That hope is addressed to discouraged exiles (Isaiah), Israelites in the liturgical community (psalm), recent converts in Corinth who hear about God’s judgment (the Epistle), and Jesus’ instructions to not be anxious (Gospel).

Isaiah 49:8-16a

The prophetic reading is part of a drama of the restoration of Israel after exile. In the preceding passage, 49:1-7, the Lord spoke to the Servant about his role in the coming new age: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (49:3, NRSV). Now, in our reading, the Servant is to be instrumental in proclaiming to the exiles (“prisoners,” verse 9) their marvelous and miraculous return to the desolate city of Zion (verses 9-12). This climaxes with an ecstatic command for rejoicing: “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult O earth… for the Lord has comforted his people, / and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (verse 13).

However, God’s forlorn and desolate wife-widow-city Zion doesn’t believe it!! “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, / my Lord [adonai, not Yahweh] has forgotten me’” (verse 14).

Yahweh immediately denies this: Can a mother forget her nursing child? Even if that were possible, Yahweh cannot forget Zion. “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (verse 16a). The verb here translated “inscribed” represents strong action, such as carving in stone (Isaiah 22:16), though it may also mean simply writing on a scroll (Isaiah 30:8, “inscribe”). The passionate Yahweh conveys his promise to Zion in radical terms.

The good news of the restoration of the exiles should bring hope that over-rides Zion’s desolation and despair!

Psalm 131

One of the briefest of the psalms is a simple but moving declaration of modesty and serenity on the part of one who trusts in God’s sustaining care. It is particularly well expressed in the New Jerusalem Bible’s translation:

Yahweh, my heart is not haughty,
          I do not set my sights too high.
I have taken no part in great affairs,
          in wonders beyond my scope.
No, I hold myself in quiet and silence,
          like a little child in its mother’s arms,
          like a little child, so I keep myself.
Let Israel hope in Yahweh
          henceforth and for ever.

I Corinthians 4:1-5

The Epistle reading is the last selection this season from Paul’s major letter to the Corinthians. This part of the letter (chapters 1-4) has been addressing the emergence of divisions in the Corinthian community, divisions among groups who champion their favorite leaders—especially Apollos on one side and Paul on the other. Here Paul sums up by saying that those who judge him adversely are misguided. It doesn’t matter what judgments of Paul’s humanity they may make, all that matters is God’s judgment.

The point is heightened when Paul says it doesn’t even matter what his own conscience tells him. Incidentally, he has a clean conscience. “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (verse 4, NRSV).

The punch-line is that the Corinthians should focus on what really matters. The center of the gospel is the acceptance by God that leads to blessing and joy ahead of them. “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes”; the commendation of God will render all human judgments unimportant (verse 5).

The Corinthians too should live in serene acceptance of each other in light of the over-riding good news that has come.

Matthew 6:24-34

The Gospel reading consists mainly of one of the best known passages of Jesus’ teaching: “Take no thought for your life” (verse 25 in KJV) or “Do not be anxious” (RSV), and the musical “Consider the lilies of the field…” (verse 28). The whole passage, verses 25-33, has to be the most impressive statement of serenity in the gospel life in the scriptures.

This is one of the longer sustained arguments in the Sermon on the Mount, which often consists of a great many relatively short, pithy statements. Here the main thesis is stated at the beginning. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, [1] what you will eat or what you will drink, or [2] about your body, what you will wear” (verse 25, NRSV). There is a brief general argument for the thesis—“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Then there are two illustrations supporting the thesis. Look at the birds of the air; they don’t work as we understand it, yet God feeds them. That’s the food point. Look at the lilies of the field; they have no garment industry, yet who is more marvelously dressed? That’s the clothes point.

A summary statement of the injunction repeats the kinds of anxiety. “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eats?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” Everybody (people of the nations, “Gentiles”) occupy themselves with those questions. YOU do not need to worry about them, because God knows what is your real business now that you have heard the good news: “Strive first for the kingdom and its righteousness [see NRSV translators’ notes], and all these things will be given to you as well” (verse 33).

If you’ve heard the good news, your lives are focused ahead, guided by righteousness—and you do not need to worry!

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