31 January 2017

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 12 February 2017

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

Background: The Words

The injunctions that are preserved for us in Exodus 20:1-17 and in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, are not necessarily ten in number (they can be parsed in a variety of ways) but they are concise and brief, and easily remembered. Some scholars have seen them as being much shorter in their original version, with material of an explanatory nature being added at a later date. The Hebrew is very condensed, with some of the words (6, 7, and 8) being composed of only two words or three syllables. Since this is in some sense legal language describing the “contract” between YHWH and the people, it would have been incised into stone, as would any document of such importance. The expansion of the words with explanatory phrases was accomplished, perhaps, when the words were consigned to the medium of parchment/papyrus and ink. The influence of Hittite and Mesopotamian codes can be seen as an influence here, but the theology of the initials words is distinctly Jewish.  The verbiage used to describe the words has been varied: commandments, words, sayings, matters, and verses. The designation as “commandment” was first seen in the Geneva Bible (1560). Another form of the injunctions can be found in Exodus 34:1-28.

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said, “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.”

It might be helpful for you to read the previous two chapters before diving into the final choices that Moses enjoins upon the people. The pattern of blessings and curses is fully evident in all of these chapters, as the real meaning of the covenant is fleshed out for the people. In the previous chapters, Moses describes the blessings and curses with a certain specificity that gives us context to these final words in today’s reading. It is, in some respect, a homily on what had been described before with the general topic being “Choose Life”. Moses anticipates Paul in his contrast of life and death, prosperity and adversity. These are the results of lives lived in reaction to the covenant, either accepting it (life and prosperity) or rejecting it (death and adversity). In a setting that we have witnessed in the readings from previous Sundays, Moses’ homily is stated as a courtroom speech with heaven and earth summoned to be witnesses to the divine transaction.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.          What agreements have you made with others during your life?
2.          What is your operating agreement with God?
3.         How are you keeping up with its provisions?


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.

Ben Sira discusses the notions of free will and God’s justice. He quickly introduces the notion of human responsibility in the face of sin with the words, “If you choose.” This notion of the choice between good and evil is common in early Jewish and Christian writing.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.     What does “free will” mean to you?
2.     In what ways have you sinned?
3.    What do you do with that sin?

Psalm 119:1-8 Beati immaculate

     Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the Lord!
2      Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!
3      Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.
4      You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.
5      Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes!
6      Then I should not be put to shame, *
when I regard all your commandments.
7      I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, *
when I have learned your righteous judgments.
8      I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.

The division of Psalm 119 is based on its twenty-two separate sections (of eight lines per section) each beginning with a succeeding letter of the alphabet. The topic of interest in the entirety of the psalm is the law of God and its relationship to humankind. This puts it in the realm of wisdom literature, but distinctively Jewish in character and theology. The purpose of the psalm was to providing instruction as to the nature of the law, and it probably dates from the post-exilic period (ca. 621 BCE) when there was great concern about the continuation the Judaism and the covenant with God. Given the subject matter we re not surprised to find numerous mentions of “teaching,” “ precept,” “decrees”, “utterance, “word”, “statute”, and “law.” There can be no mistaking the intent of the verses.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
1.     How do you deal with rules in life?
2.     Are there any rules that make you happy?
3.    How is your religious life rules?

Second Reading: I 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.

Paul urges the members of the Corinthian congregation in their spiritual growth. Having found them as “infants in Christ” he fed them milk – the diet of the initiate. He realizes that they are still are in their infancy, for their behaviors betray a lack of maturity in the faith. He points to the divisions in their midst, “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos.” The real foundation in their growth, Paul points out, is God’s purpose and work. They are the field of endeavor, and the apostles are just workers in that same field. God is the one who provides for the growth.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. In way ways are you an infant in your faith?
  2. What does Paul mean by the term “solid food”?
  3. How mature are you in your faith?

The Gospel: 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.”

Jesus is the radical.  That is he gets to the root (radix) of things – here the Law. In this group of sayings, Jesus seems to review the law, in specific, some of the ten words or injunctions that we recognize in the commandments. His purpose seems to be not one of comfort but rather conviction – a realization that in spite of all good intents, most of us will have not kept the law. These reinterpretations and examinations are laced with a goodly level of pragmatism, “come to terms quickly with your accuser”, and authenticity, “anyone who divorces his wife…” They exempt no one from the examination, and no one is above reproach. These instructions are part of a series that follow the beatitudes and the sayings about salt and light. If having walked through the ethical considerations of the beatitudes with Jesus, we feel that a righteous life is indeed possible, then these teachings set us straight. For the way is difficult – it will require Christ’s presence in our midst. “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is the root of your life in Christ?
2.     How do you try to meet the letter of the law?
3.    What do you do when you fail?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

24 January 2017

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 5 February 2017

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]
Psalm 112:1-9 [10]
I Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]
Saint Matthew 5:13-20

Background: Salt

An essential component of life, salt has been processed from 8,000 BCE, when in what is modern day Romania, people were boiling spring water in order to produce salt for use as a flavoring or as a preservative. The ancient world valued salt, indeed our modern word “salary” has its origins in the Latin word for salt, sal, a means of payment for the Roman army. It was the basis of trade over both land by caravan, and by sea by boats plying the Mediterranean waters. It became a means for barter, and was also used in religious ceremonies as well. At the time of a new moon, salt was thrown into a fire. It is mixed with ordinary water in preparing Holy Water for use in Baptisms, and in holy water stoops in churches. The Hebrew Scripture refer to salt some thirty-five times. From the etiological story of Lot’s wife (who was turned into a pillar of salt at Sodom) to Job’s description of the use of salt as a flavoring, “is there any taste in the white of an egg?” (Job 6:6). Jesus describes those who follow him as “salt of the earth.”

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to 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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

[If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.]

When reading from Isaiah it is always my temptation to connect which ever of the Isaiahs to some aspect of the exile, either in anticipation or as a reflection. Here, in the reading for this morning, we have the prophet bidden to speak about fasting.  The first verse is a stark command, “Shout out, do not hold back.” As usual the prophet is seeking to restore the relationship of the people to their God, and God is responding by directing the comments that need to be made. At the outset there is an appraisal of the practice of fasting – an attempt to meet God’s demands, yet falling short of the goal. The intentions of the fast seem to be in doubt, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” It is in the second statement that we begin to see God’s argument, that the fasting is ill directed, self-interested, and inappropriately involving others in your own religious obligation.

At verse 6 we can begin to see what it is that God is requiring. It is a fast that is not directed at self, or even at God, but rather it is one that takes into account the neighbor, the brother, and the sister. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice to undo the thongs of the yoke.” This is classic prophetic talk, describing the needs of society and our role as a partner with God in meeting that need. The fast that is to be abandoned is one that is centered around the externals of the fast, and not on the essentials of the fast. There is a repentance that is required, but it is a turning to the needs of the neighbor, “to satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” Given that, God promises to continue acts of guidance and satisfaction.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          What do you do when you fast?
2.          In what ways are you aware of the needs of your neighbor?
3.         How do you help your neighbor?

Psalm 112:1-9, [10] Beatus vir

Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!
2      Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3      Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.
4      Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.
5      It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.
6      For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.
7      They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right;
they put their trust in the Lord.
8      Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.
9      They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.
[10 The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.]

Psalm 112 is a Wisdom psalm, “Happy the man” that is also an acrostic. The purpose of the psalm is to enumerate the various virtues of the righteous person. The descriptions are heroic in nature, the goodness that the righteous display leads to prosperity, stability, honesty, and a good reputation. Verse 10 supplies a contrast to the righteous person, the wicked who are vexed by the success of their others.

Breaking open Psalm 112:
1.     What about your religious life makes you happy?
2.     What attributes do you see in a “good person?”
3.    What rewards have you received in your life?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 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. [And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.]

Paul contrasts conventional, earthly wisdom with the wisdom of God. He finds the former to be lacking and at odds with the Gospel that he is bidden to proclaim. In summary, that Gospel is “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” And in this we see the problem, or at least the dilemma. This is the “weakness and fear” in which Paul approaches the task. The wisdom of God he describes as “secret and hidden” and not understood by the rulers of this age. What Paul wants his reader to wrestle with is the very notion of faith, a faith that depends on the power of God’s wisdom. This is a very personal mission that Paul undertakes, and he makes it clear to us: “When I came to you,” “I decided to know nothing,” “I came to you.” He takes on this apostolic role with a great deal of seriousness and intent. However, it is not Paul’s wisdom that he dispenses, but God’s. Just as he contrasts human from divine wisdom, so he also contrasts “the spirit of the world,” and God’s spirit. It is this spirit that gives him the language and vocabulary so to instruct us all in the mind of Christ.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. In what ways are you wise?
  2. What wisdom has your faith given you?
  3. How is God’s wisdom different?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We continue in our readings from Matthew’s “Great Instruction”.  Today’s selection consists of two pericopes, the first, “The Marks of the Disciple” (5:13-16) and the second, “The Fulfillment of the Law” (5:17-20). In the first, Jesus outlines in broad strokes what is to be expected of those who follow and learn from him: “saltiness”, and light. Disciples are then to be noticed and to command attention. If that cannot happen, if they “are of low grade”, then they are useless to the task. Attention is to be garnered among those who observe the disciple by observing their good works. In that way they shine in our midst.

The second of the pericopes outlines Jesus’ attitude toward the Law and its demands, for they are the principles that are expected to be seen in the behavior of the disciple. Jesus’ approach here explains why Jewish followers were so insistent that any Gentiles who would also follow should also observe the demands of the Law. Paul takes a different tack on this point. There is no wavering here on Jesus’ point, “For I tell you that unless you are more righteous than the scribes of the Pharisees you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Given these understandings, Jesus is then ready to take on more specific instruction that will follow in the succeeding chapters: Anger (5:21-26), Adultery (5:27-30), Marriage (5:31-32), Oaths (5:33-37), Retaliation (5:38-42), Enemies (5:43-48), Almsgiving (6:1-4), Prayer (6:5-14), and so on.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How do people know that you are a disciple of Jesus?
2.     What about your life grabs other people’s attention?
3.    What rules come out of your living the faith?

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

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller