12 February 2020

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 February 2020

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

Background: The Ten Words and the Hittite Treaty

Several biblical commentators have begun to note the dependence of the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words on the provisions in Hittite treaties. The cultural and political understanding of such treaties was that there was a suzerain (the king, or in the commandments YHWH) and the vassal (vassal kings or dependencies, or in the commandments, the people of Israel). The treaty usually began with a recital of the suzerain’s beneficent acts toward the vassal. In Exodus 20, we see a similar recital that reminds Israel of their being led out of the slavery of Egypt. What followed, then was a series of obligations that the vassal owed the suzerain, “You shall have no other gods”, etc. This resembles the Hittite concern about have relationships with kings, powers, and peoples beyond the relationship with the suzerain. Others have seen the “no other gods before me, as a tacit recognition of the polytheism that marked the dominant culture of the time. Some have seen the Ten Words as a description of the suzerain’s (God’s) power. The remaining words, however, are not so much political as they are indications as to how society is to operate. 

The 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.”

We are invited to a drama here, or at least to a reenactment that strove to remind the people of a later time of the power and drama of Sinai. It is persuasive speech that hopes that the people will align with the ancient virtues and morals. If the initial provisions of the Ten Words (see the Background above) is one of aligning oneself with the suzerain, God, then this speech on Moses’ part seems to underscore the necessity of that provision as fundamental to the Israelites in their covenanted relationship not only with God but with one another as well. When Moses sets before them “life and prosperity, death and adversity” he alludes to the blessings and curses that accompanied any treaty or covenant. Indeed later on in the speech he does speak of the blessings and curses that are set before the people. It is a choice that each individual has to make. In a sense we are present at a trial, or at least all the elements of a trial are prepared and introduced to us, especially the witnesses, the heavens and the earth. They will be seen over and over again in this book. The covenant is fundamental.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.            What choices do you have in your life?
2.            What choices do you have in your faith?
3.            If you choose life, what does that mean?


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.

If the reading from Deuteronomy, above, teeters between blessings and curses, this reading from Ecclesiasticus teeters between an inclination for good and an inclination for evil. It is a similar theme. For Ben Sira it is a matter of choice, similar to the choice that Moses describes in the alternate first reading. The contrasts in this reading are interesting: fire and water, life and death, righteousness and wickedness. God is seen here, as a divine overseer, observing the choices that each individual makes. You are permitted anything, but you are not permitted to be wicked.

Breaking open Sirach:
1.            What choices do you have in your life?
2.            What choices do you have in your faith?
3.            If you choose life, what does that mean?

Psalm 119:1-8 Beati immaculate

     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.

One of the features of the post-exilic period was its attempt to reacquaint people with the faith and practices of their fathers and mothers – the ancient faith. This psalm most likely dates from that period, around 621 BCE. It attempts to describe the life of the righteous, those who follow the ancient teachings, those who “walk in the law of the Lord.” It is a wisdom psalm that aspires to teach us. We observe and are invited to follow the Torah (the teaching) along with the law, decrees, commandments, ways, statutes, words, and judgments. Verses 5 through 8 might well be put on the lips of Moses’ hearers in the first reading, their response to his invitation to choose the Lord.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
1.        What did your parents teach you about religion?
2.        What were their values like?
3.        Do your values differ?

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.

Leaving behind his arguments regarding the spirit of the world, the Spirit of Wisdom, given of God, Paul now concerns himself with the descension that seems to divide the congregation at Corinth. He marks how they are immature in their faith – “I fed you with milk, not solid food.” He finds them still immature, and of the flesh. The signs that he sees are their “jealousy and quarreling.” It’s not a difficult thing for us to apprehend, for we have seen the same factionalism, and favoritism in our own congregations and churches. There seems to have been a cult of personality, that Paul then speaks against, reminding them that God is the builder, the planter, the provider of growth. Their role is on of working together, with God, in God’s field.

Breaking open I Corinthians::
  1. In what ways are you an infant in your faith?
  2. Are you ever an adult? How?
  3. How do you grow and mature 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.”

Just prior to this instruction Jesus notes that his teaching does not demolish the Law, and in our reading, he gives examples of the fulfilling of the law. First there is an exposition on the commandment about killing – and Jesus expands it so that we understand that even language that derides our neighbor is murderous – a lesson for our time. 

Then there is teaching on marriage and divorce. This is a hard teaching in our time, and there is a great deal of descension on its meaning for us. The teaching is clearly pointed at men, and seeks to honor the place of a woman. Again, Jesus moves beyond a common understanding of divorce law and moves it to the realities that this has for both men and women.

Finally, in our reading Jesus teaches about making oaths. This is a conversation that might have a great deal of meaning for people in our time. What does it mean to make an oath or vow? Jesus implores us to make our words, our words – not the word of a thing, a symbol, an institution, or a government. Be plain in your speech, and plan to follow through with what you say. This is a word to the wise for those who swear oaths.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        What are your thoughts on each of these examples?
2.        Which one troubles you the most?
3.        Which one challenges you the most?

General idea:              Choosing Life

Example 1:                  Life in God’s Law (First Readings)

Example 2:                  A Life of Response to God’s Law (Psalm)

Example 3:                  Choosing to be and adult (Second Reading)

Example 4:                  Choosing to live beyond the Law (Gospel)

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 © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

04 February 2020

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 9 February 2020

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

Background: Salt

Salt has many different roles in the Bible, and in the ancient world in general. In addition to being used as a seasoning in food, it also served as a means of food preservation, a disinfectant, as a monetary unit, and as ceremonial element. Salt came from many sources including ancient salt mines. In the Levant, the Dead Sea was a primary resource, especially at Jebel Usdum. See Ezekiel 47:6-11 for a reference to salt from the Dead Sea. The story of Lot’s wife turning into salt (Genesis 19:26) is especially pertinent here. Salt was also used in religious ceremonies, cast on sacrificial offerings, and offered up with incense as well. The eating of salt was also a sign of community and fellowship. Babies were rubbed with salt at birth as well.

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.]

Our reading for this morning comes from a larger section (Chapters 56:9-58) that is concerned with the blessings and curses that accompany a covenant, here reproaches to the wicked and a promise to the faithful. In order to see the pattern of development that leads up to this reading, it might be helpful to review the material that immediately precedes our reading: 1) 56:1-8, true religion, 2) 56:9-57:13 Israel’s forsaking of true religion, and 3) 57:14-21 God’s power to heal. That same pattern is repeated in chapter 58, with our reading dealing with the notion of true religion. This is not material that the Isaiahs have not dealt with before. A review of Isaiah 1:10-20 sounds a similar theme as it denounces religion that does not take into account the necessity of relationship. It is the theme of justice and righteousness that is sounded here. 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?” This is a familiar argument of the Isaiahs, and other prophets as well. Preachers using this text should make certain that they listen to the first words of the pericope. “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” You have been asked to speak about both rebellion and blessing. If there is a penance that it is asked for here it is the penance of sharing. The sharing of bread, of the stuff of life, of wealth and justice – these are the things that the prophet demands. The prophet notes the gloom of his time, an idea that we can certainly recognize in our own time. The promise is of light and guidance from God, as we serve others.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.            What are the blessings of your life?
2.            What have been the curses?
3.            What good news are you called to announce?

Psalm 112:1-9, [10] Beatus vir

Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!
     Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
     Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.
     Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.
     It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.
     For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.
     They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right;
they put their trust in the Lord.
     Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.
     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.]

I think it is odd that the framers of the lectionary chose to make the final verse of Psalm 112 optional. Perhaps they didn’t read the enjoinder of the first verse of the first reading – the one about speaking with a loud voice, both blessings and curses. The psalm describes the man or woman who fears the Lord. God’s commands they “have great delight in.” The heroes and heroines of any time, if they have kept God’s commands, if they have been merciful and full of compassion, they need not worry about their reputation – it will be kept as a good remembrance even beyond death. The last verse is important because it serves as a contrast to the righteous ones depicted in the earlier verses. Is this option a sign of our cowardice – shying away from the truth that must be announced in our time?
s the King who rules over Jerusalem, but it is God who is the true protector.

Breaking open Psalm 112:
1.        Are there wicked people in your life?
2.        How do you deal with them?
3.        In what ways are you righteous?

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 perceives dichotomies here – and that is best stated in his initial proclamation that he has come to proclaim Christ crucified. It is a muddled term – Messiahs are not to be put to death. It is as one commentator called it, something like “fried ice.” Paul wants us to hear wisdom, but not the wisdom of this world. It is rather a wisdom that has been hidden for the ages, and that now comes to us apart from the spirit of the world, but rather is from the Spirit from God. In his introductory material, in almost Jeremiah-like language he describes the inability of his own speech and language. He says, “I came to you in weakness.” The power of God, however, motivated something different. “We speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.” Like Isaiah, in the first reading, Paul perceives the spiritual and the unspiritual. The closing verse is crucial, “We have the mind of Christ.” And what shall that mind call us to be or to do?

Breaking open I Corinthians::
  1. What are the weaknesses of your faith?
  2. What strengths do you have?
  3. How do you use your strengths for the sake of good?

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.”

Now we venture into the Sermon on the Mount, which begins in chapter 5 and continues through chapter 7. The theme of the sermon is an exploration of what it means to live in God’s kingdom. In spite of popular depictions of the sermon, it was not intended for the crowds but rather his disciples. In it, Jesus describes the relationship of the disciples with God the Father (the term is used 17 times in the discourse). In spite of that description, Jesus sees himself as the authoritative interpreter of both God and Torah – an astounding claim. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

It appears that Jesus wants those who follow him to matter – to mean something. They are to be like salt, or like light. They are to make a difference, and here we are tied again to Isaiah and the trumpet-like voice with which he is to proclaim the Kingdom. The question with which we need to wrestle is one of authority. Can we speak and preach with authority – with a loud voice that will capture society’s attention. Many in our time claim to be Jesus’ disciples. Now we are asked to wonder how we will be salt and light in our world – how we will be what Jesus has asked us to be.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        How are you salt?
2.        How are you light?
3.        Describe your relationship to Jesus.

General Idea:              Discerning what we are to say

Idea 1:                          Talk about what it means to be a preacher.

Idea 2:                          Directives to the Preacher: Isaiah

Idea 3:                          Directives to the Righteous: Psalm 112

Idea 4:                          Directives to the Weak: I Corinthians

Idea 5:                          Directives to the Disciple: Gospel

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 © 2020, Michael T. Hiller