The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 February 2014

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20, or Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8 (Aleph)
I Corinthians 3:1-9
St. Matthew 5:21-37

Background:  The Apocrypha and the Revised Common Lectionary
When the Lectionary of the Roman Church which resulted from the liturgical changes engendered by Vatican II were widely adopted by both the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches, a trickle of readings from the Apocrypha became available for use on Sundays and Holy days.  These works, not included in the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures, were none-the-less used, commented on, and mined by the early Christian community.  With the repristination of all things liturgical that was desired by the reformers, these books and their subsequent inclusion in the lectionary were deleted from its collection.  In both Lutheran and Episcopal churches, however, the Apocrypha was always held as a collection worthy of being read and included in the devotional life of Christians.  Thus with the versions of the Roman Lectionary that were included in the revisions by both Episcopalians and Lutherans readings from the Apocrypha were retained.  Indeed as the use expanded amongst Presbyterians and Methodists, and other Christians as well, it was felt that the lectionary needed to come into greater conformity, and the result was the Revised Common Lectionary.  Where apocryphal readings are indicated for a day, such is this Sunday; alternatives are placed for those who are uneasy using the apocryphal text. 

Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 15:15-20

If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power and sees everything;
his eyes are on those who fear him,
and he knows every human action.
He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,
and he has not given anyone permission to sin.

Unlike other books in the Bible, there is a relative certainty as to who wrote this book, for he signed his name to it.  He is Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sira, and he seems to have written this material around 180 BCE.  Its contents are a defense of Judaism in the face of over-whelming Hellenistic influence.  Thus he lifts up the Wisdom of the ancient days, and of the practice of Israel for the benefit of Jews living in Palestine or the Diaspora.  What results in our reading for today is a discourse on the notion of free will.  Notice in the reading the multiple uses of the idea of choice: keeping the commandments, faithfulness, fire and water, life and death.  In a time of cultural upheaval, which the Hellenistic period certainly represented, the ancient values are questioned and the decisions about daily life and faithfulness are difficult.  He is firm that God has not laid sin in our laps, but it is our own choice over these things that need to be examined. 

Breaking open Ecclesiasticus:

1.     What choices face you today?
2.     Are any of them choices of a moral nature?  How?
3.     How will you do God’s will?

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said to all Israel the words which the Lord commanded him, "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."

The initial verse forms a model upon which Sirach may have built his own argument: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  Although the word choice is not included here it is certainly implied.  This is not the first time that such choices have been laid out before humankind.  Indeed, in the primary narrative, the creation stories, we have the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil planted in the center of the garden.  So the Deuteronomist stresses our need to make moral choices in the world, and gives us the example of the commandments, and faithfulness to YHWH to guide us in both living and dying.  This is a covenantal moment, and like others before him, the author summons us to the courtroom to hear the testimony of the witnesses – “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today.”  Then we are urged to “choose life.”  What follows in the Deuteronomist’s mind is life and “length of days, so that you may live in the land.” Here we are aware that Israel stands at the cusp and on the border of the Promised Land.  What will life be like there?

Breaking open Deuteronomy:

1.     What might the testimony of heaven and earth about you be like?
2.     How do you know good from evil?
3.     How do you choose life?

Psalm 119:1-8 Aleph: Beati immaculati

Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the LORD!

Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!

Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.

You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.

Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes!

Then I should not be put to shame, *
when I regard all your commandments.

I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, *
when I have learned your righteous judgments.

I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.

Lucas Cranach the Elder - "Law and Grace"

It may be that this psalm, a long acrostic in which each section of eight lines of poetry begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, has a deep connection with the Book of Deuteronomy.  It’s intents and purposes are parallel to those of both the Deuteronomist and ben Sira.  In its explication of the Law, the author wants to reacquaint the reader with the fundamentals of Judaism.  For this reason, many scholars date this psalm sometime during the post-exilic period, when such a primer would be necessary.  The sources of this divine instruction are many: law, decrees, ways, commandments, statutes, and judgments.  Here is the Wisdom that was sought not only by Israel, but also by the ancient cultures that surrounded them, and here was the Wisdom that would sustain them in less than charitable times.  It was a bargain, “I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.”

Breaking open Psalm 119:
  1. What do you learn from the Ten Commandments?
  2. Would you add any?  What might they be?
  3. What stringent rules do you have for yourself?

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. 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?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.

Maurice de Vlaminck - "The Gardener"

This morning we resume our continuing reading from I Corinthians.  Wisdom is on our minds here, especially remember last Sunday’s reading where Paul speaks of that “hidden wisdom” that emanates from the Spirit, and calls the Christian community to Christ.  Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that he is not only a recipient of that wisdom but also a dispenser of the same.  Why is he alone the possessor?  “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”  The gift of the Spirit is strong stuff and the behaviors of the Corinthian congregation give evidence of their immaturity, “there is jealousy and quarreling among you.”  Thus Paul, the teacher and mentor, reminds the reader of his goal and purpose, and of what must be both learned and kept.  The metaphor of the gardener and the garden is perfect here.  There is a common purpose for both.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. How do you judge the maturity of your faith?
  2. In what ways are you an infant?
  3. What goals for maturity do you have?

St. Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

"You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

"It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be `Yes, Yes' or `No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Again we have a collection of separate pericopes in this reading that follow the Great Instruction that begins with the Beatitudes:

1.      5:21-26:  Instruction on Anger
2.    5:27-30:  Instruction on Adultery
3.   5:31-32:  Instruction on Marriage
4.   5:33-37:  Instruction on Oaths

The verse “If you bring your offering to the altar…” was a verse that preceded the offering of peace in a liturgy from the Worship Supplement, a trial liturgy used in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in the late 1960s.  I vividly recall its use and a subsequent reaction when after the celebrant recited the verse and called upon us to share the peace, the professor sitting next to me greeted me and then left in haste.  I need to mention that this was during the period of time when the Missouri Synod was in great turmoil, with professors at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, being questioned about their faithfulness and teaching.  After the Mass, I sought out the professor and asked why he had left before the communion.  He explained that he had not made his peace with another professor who was accusing him of false teaching.  He could not, he felt, participate in the Eucharist, until he had reconciled with his brother professor.

It is a bit specious to say that this pericope is about adultery, when really the import is that we cannot keep the law.  It was Jimmy Carter that lifted up this particular teaching when he was President.  Try as we might to keep the statutes of the Law we will “miss the mark.”  Jesus’ comments about throwing away parts of our body (our life, our existence) that cause us to sin are sort of a reverse creation.  Better that the Spirit blow new life in us so that we can walk with God.

Jesus is the true radical here in that he seeks to get at the radix (the root) of what the ancient teaching.  If he is put against the teachings of Moses, as the Pharisees and Sadducees will do, Jesus shows that he can out-Moses anybody.  The commandments of God set a high bar.  Who can jump it?

In making our argument to our fellows we often resort to institutions and existence well outside of ourselves.  Watching anything in culture these days have seen these entities pummeled into dust by our unknowing use of them.  Better a “Yes” or a “No”, Jesus says.  But that would be difficult in our time when “Yes” is a shill for “No” and visa versa.  The promises of our culture and our commerce are empty and demeaning, and yet we seek after them.  Jesus calls us to simplicity of life and meaning.

Breaking open Gospel:

1.     How do you attempt to keep the Commandment?
2.     What is your idea of human perfection?

3.     Is it possible?  Why or why not?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


Popular posts from this blog

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 6 June 2021

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, 11 October 2020

The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020