The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, 19 February 2017

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Saint Matthew 5:38-48

In the Gospel for today, Jesus quotes the so called lex talionis (law of retribution), and in doing so connects the reader or hearer with a long tradition of legal codes in the ancient near east.  The real foundation is in Babylonian Law and the Code of Hammurabi. The intents of both this code and its Hebrew descendent were to limit retributive actions in a tribal culture that seemed to relish vengeful actions. This law was meant to make certain that the retribution was no worse than the crime, although in Babylonian usage, this understanding was mitigated by social status. The Roman law of retribution revolved around monetary compensation rather than vengeance. Leviticus outlines the Hebrew understanding, “And a man who injures his countryman – as he has done, so it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” (Leviticus 24:19-20). In the later rabbinic period, the understanding moved to a pecuniary compensation. Jesus radicalizes even this understanding, reinterpreting it as a matter of “turning the other cheek.”

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

You may want to wander back to Chapter 17 and 18 to remind yourself of the Holiness Code, of which this pericope is both part and heart. It’s purpose is to convince the people that they are to exhibit the holiness seen in the God that they worship and adore. Verse 2 summarizes the intent: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The purpose of this reading from the lectionary, however, is not to address that mighty theme but rather to look at how the holy community addresses and gives place the poor and the stranger. Thus we skip to the 9th verse to see the provisions for the gleaners. The care of the community’s common wealth, its produce, its honesty, its care of the neighbor, and its justice become the focal points of our consideration this morning. It is especially poignant given the political atmosphere in our country, where these injunctions seem to speak against what is being recommended to us as a way of dealing with terrorism and warfare. Leviticus seems to make real the messianic promises of what is owed the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. This might prove to be the platform for a powerful and challenging sermon, or period of private meditations.

Breaking open Leviticus:
1.          What does holiness mean to you?
2.          Where do you see the holy in your world?
3.         In what ways are you holy?

Psalm 119:33-40 Legem pone

33    Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, *
and I shall keep it to the end.
34    Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *
I shall keep it with all my heart.
35    Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire.
36    Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.
37    Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *
give me life in your ways.
38    Fulfill your promise to your servant, *
which you make to those who fear you.
39    Turn away the reproach which I dread, *
because your judgments are good.
40    Behold, I long for your commandments; *
in your righteousness preserve my life.

As a way of introducing your self to this rather long psalm, a meditation on the Law, you might wish to review the comments made on the psalm for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany. It is an ideal accompaniment to the first reading for this morning, in which some of the same themes are addressed. There are several mentions of the “heart”, which in ancient times was seen much as we see the mind today – it was the center of understanding and comprehension. What we see here, in this psalm, is a piety centered on the Law, a piety that was perhaps necessary at the reintroduction of Yahwism during the period anticipating or after the Exile. Artur Weiser, in his commentary on the Psalms, describes the psalm as “particularly artificial”, and as a “many-coloured mosaic.”[1] Seeing any kind of stylistic homogeneity or organization reaches beyond the psalm. It’s theme, however, is singular – a love of the Law.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
1.     What does the Law mean to you?
2.     Does the Law ever cause you grief?
3.    Does the Law bring you a sense of satisfaction?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,

“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.”

So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Paul is concerned about the Body of Christ, at Corinth, that is being torn apart by divisions and quarrels. Thus our pericope begins with the notion of a building, along with Paul’s self-understanding of himself as a “master builder.” What follows then is understanding of Jesus as the foundation and cornerstone. What follows then is that each of us is a builder building on the foundation of Jesus.

The next natural metaphor and point of reference is the Temple, the building par-excellence, and in Paul’s vision the individual Christian and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. His concern is much like that of the author of Leviticus – holiness, and how to achieve it. Evidence of the Spirit’s presence is the wisdom that comes from her, and so he compares it with worldly wisdom, which is characterized as “foolishness with God”. As if to heal the breach mentioned earlier, the factionalism surrounding Paul, Apollos, Cephas, etc., Paul reminds the reader that we are not to boast about our human leaders but to only have our portion with Christ, and thus with God.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What is your understanding of the Body of Christ?
  2. How is that understanding lived out in your congregation?
  3. Are their factions in your church?  How do you deal with that?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 5:38-48

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In a manner similar to the Levitical Holiness Code, and indeed in some respects the musings of Psalm 119, Matthew organizes Jesus’ teaching on ethical issues in the Sermon on the Mount. What follows the Beatitudes, which we reviewed some Sundays ago, is a series of instruction on various matters that expound the Law of Moses and its provisions. Here we have two pericopes. The first (verses 38-42) discusses a matter that has plagued the ancient near east for millennia – retaliation. The second (verses 43-48) looks at how we treat enemies.

The section retaliation takes as a starting point the lex talionis (see Background above) that was actually a limitation on the excesses of ancient near eastern patterns of retribution. Jesus takes it even further, giving the advantage to the one who strikes, or sues, or presses into service. This radical approach, and attempt to understand the real intent of the law, is best seen in the final verse of this pericope, “give to every one…” Here Jesus addresses what were the actualities of life and indebtedness in the Palestine of his time. The Law against usury (Deuteronomy 23:20) was quite clear. The circumvention of this understanding was made possible in the verse that follows in Deuteronomy (23:21). Legal fabrications made it possible for the intents of the Law regarding indebtedness to be disregarded or ignored.

The quotation that begins the second pericope is from Leviticus 19:18, with the second half regarding the enemy probably coming from post-exilic commentary on relationships with gentiles. In the manner Jesus introduces in the first pericope, above, he moves beyond the spirit of the Law and its interpretation to a new understanding of how the enemy and neighbor is to be treated. He remarks on the prodigality of God who causes the sun to shine on both good and evil, and the behaviors of people who have been treated as evil, but who have made for good. Jesus sees good behavior in the universe of all people. Here the disciples are called upon to exceed these deeds.

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 Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Weiser, A. (1962), The Psalms – A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 739.


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