The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 9 February 2014

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112
I Corinthians 2:1-16
St. Matthew 5:13-20

Background: Salt in the Bible

Jesus’ comment on salt in the Gospel reading for today gives us a moment to look at this vital element and its role in the Bible.  Salt was a valuable commodity in the Ancient Near East, so valuable that it was often taxed by weight.  The salt source in Israel was the salt water of the Dead Sea, which was left to evaporate in the desert sun, providing a deposit of salt in the pits.  It was noted as being contaminated by other minerals, thus not being as salty as necessary.  This reputation may have given rise to Jesus’ comment about salt “loosing its flavor.”  Salt was not only used to season food, but also was used as a preservative, a medium of exchange, as a disinfectant, and as a component of sacrifices and votive offerings.  Salt was used in war as well.  Often the lands of a conquered city were salted, either for ceremonial reasons, indicating an offering to a god, or as a means of making the farmlands unusable.  Christians know salt that is sometimes put into the mouth of an infant at baptism, or is used in the blessing of water for the Font, or holy water stoops. 

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)

Thus says the high and lofty one

who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
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;

hey 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.]

The subject that this latter Isaiah wishes to address concerns fasting, and how one properly does it.  The initial verses almost seem disconnected from the material that follows, but its terse phrases gets the reader’s attention.  Finally in verse 3 the question is asked, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Before we look at the answer that is provided, we need to understand the nature of the question in the first place.  Following the defeat of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, it was a common liturgical practice to chant laments, and provide for fasts.  The prophets had set the political disasters of the time in a setting of disobedience either by the people or by the political and religious leaders.  Thus the whole nation needed to fast and lament what had befallen them, and to repent of any sin that may have caused it.  Following the return from exile, these practices persist, but now the questions is “Why do we still do this?”

In a manner reflective of Amos, this Isaiah comments on the hypocrisy of the fasting done in Israel.  It is centered in a sense of greed and selfishness, that allows the fasting to be done by some, while others are consigned to difficult work, or the fasters continue in their striving with their fellows.  The latter verses propose a fasting that focuses not on the advantage that others can give but rather on their needs.  One verse is messianic in its character:

“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?”

The focus here, especially in the final verses, changes from that of the nation, to the individuals that comprise the nation.  It is their behaviors, their conversation with God, and their awareness of the other around them that are seen as the context of true fasting.  It is not God who restores the city through miraculous means but rather every man and every woman who shall be “the repairer of the breach.”  Does the author mean a city wall, or does he imply relationships in the community and with God?  Perhaps he means both.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     Do you ever deprive yourself of something as a spiritual discipline?
2.     What is it?  Does it work?
3.     How does it connect you with God?

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.

[The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.]

This is a wisdom psalm written as a short acrostic, with each line beginning with a character from the Hebrew alphabet.  The opening line is reminiscent of Psalm 1, and the verses recount the character of the righteous man or woman.  The gender-conscious translation from the BCP mutes some of the power of the first verses:  “Their descendants will be mighty in the land;” vs. “A great figure (a warrior or a hero) in the land his seed shall be.” (Alter[1]).  Like Saint Paul, the psalmist lists the virtues of this happy and blessed man or woman.  Prosperity flows to those who exhibit compassion, and who deal in justice.  They are generous, and their generosity becomes their legacy.  The final verse, which comments on the wicked observing these righteous actions and noting their reaction and fate, is optional.  What a wonderful lectio divina might that verse provide?

Breaking open Psalm 112:
  1. Are there generations of righteousness in your family?
  2. Who is your family hero?  Why?
  3. How do others see your righteousness?

1 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.]

Thus, after the hiatus due to the Presentation of Our Lord, last Sunday, we continue a lectio continua from I Corinthians. What we missed from the readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, was Saint Paul’s comments about the calling of Christians (I Corinthians 1:26-31).  If you have the time, click on the hyperlink and look at how Paul describes that calling.  For those of you who cannot, these comments will help you understand the context of what Paul gives to us in the second chapter.  “There are not many who are wise according to the flesh.” (verse 26a). “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” (verse 27a). “By this act you are in Christ Jesus, who has been made our wisdom.” (verse 30a).

With this background, we can understand Paul’s introduction of the theme of his preaching, and his pastoral intents: “I did not come in such a way as to distinguish myself in eloquence or wisdom.”  The wisdom that would seem to allude both the wise and the weak is seen in thy mystery revealed by the “Spirit and power.”  Paul wants his readers to be aware and to be able to distinguish between human wisdom, and the wisdom that is the power of God. 

The next pericope (verses 6-16) goes even deeper, seeking to reveal a hidden wisdom that is not of this world.  There are two aspects or stages of his argument.  The first (verses 6-9) is a discussion on wisdom itself, and then the second (verses 10-16) wisdom among the perfect.  If John speaks of a pre-existent Christ, then it is Paul who speaks of a wisdom “which God proposed before the worlds (or ages).”  Paul sees it as a planned element of what was to come – creation and the created.  The arbiter here is the Spirit – that element of the Voice of God that is present at creation and as an on-going presence in the world.  It is that Spirit that breathes into us a fuller knowledge of God.  And if we are caught up in this notion of the Spirit (ru’ah) at creation, continuing to reveal God’s will and plan, Paul quickly orients us to the new nature of the Spirit.  “We, however, have the Spirit of Christ.” Here is the boundrey marker.  Is Paul wrestling with proto-Gnostics, or the purveyors of another kind of wisdom?  Perhaps.  He wants to be clear with his Corinthian readers the provenance of “his” wisdom.  It is not his own, but belongs to the Spirit who provides it to the Church.  What he fights against is a faddish wisdom of the world – a wisdom that had attracted some in the congregation at Corinth.  Paul matches them gnosis for gnosis, wisdom for wisdom, mystery for mystery.  The implicit question is this (Isaiah 40:13): Who has directed the spirit of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?”  Paul visits this question of Isaiah in his letter to the Romans (11:33-34), and it seems pertinent here:  Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways. For who has known the mind of the Lord? or who has been his counselor?” Paul urges us to look deeply into the ages, and hear the Spirit’s call to God’s wisdom in Christ.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. Are you wise in a worldly sense?
  2. How wise are you in your spiritual life?
  3. Where do the two meet?

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 lamp stand, 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 are still at the mount and listening to the discourse given to the disciples.  These verses follow the Beatitude and are instruction on how to be a disciple (the first pericope – verses 13-16), and a discourse on the fulfillment of the Law (the second pericope – verses 17-20. 

We can argue long and hard about what it is that Jesus means with his comments on “saltiness”, and we can debate the effectiveness of the comparison.  We can however understand its intent and purpose.  It is quite simple.  Be yourself as a disciple of Jesus.  Make certain that the essential saltiness and brightness of the light are evident to all.  Robert Bellah, in his outstanding book called Religion and Human Evolution, makes this poignant comment, “The self is a telling.”  And it is this that Jesus wants to accentuate.  If you are to follow then you need not only to listen and attempt to understand, but one needs to tell as well.  We are called to be evidence.  The summary of Jesus works well, “Let your light so shine among all that they may see your good works and give glory to your heavenly Father.”

If we take the example of Jesus at his baptism, where he says to John, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (St. Matthew 3:15), we can see his intent for his disciples as well.  Their instruction and indeed their ministry was not to be seen as a departure from the Law, but rather a fulfillment of it.  What will follow this introduction is a series of readings over the next Sundays on what the Law is: Anger (5:21-26), Adultery (5:27-30), Marriage (5:31-32), Oaths (5:33-37), Retaliation (5:38-42), and Enemies (5:43-48).  These would seem to be lessons for difficult times – pertinent in our own time. 

Breaking open Gospel:
1.      How are you “salty”?
2.      How are you light?
3.      How is your congregation salty and light?

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.

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

[1]      Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2007, page 401.


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