The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, 23 February 2014

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

Background: Leviticus

Readings from Leviticus in the Revised Common Lectionary are rare indeed.  Of the two citations, one for Year A, Epiphany VII, and the other for Year A, Proper 25, the both are virtually the same citation, the Epiphany reading being a bit more complete than the other.  It might be good then to look at the background of Leviticus and its role in the Torah and in the Lectionary since we encounter it not at all often.  The book represents a cusp of sorts ending the engaging narratives of Genesis and Exodus and giving pause before the wanderings of Israel continue in the Book of Numbers.  Its position suggests an antiquity that is probably not there, at least in its current form.  That is not to say that ancient materials are not present, but the book probably comes from the post-exilic period (ca. 538 BCE), with revisions and edits largely completed during a period of Persian influence (538-332 BCE). 

It becomes apparent, as the reader makes a way through the myriad rituals and rules that governed them, that this must be a sort of temple or liturgical primer for a people bent on reordering the worship of a temple destroyed in the past.  But it is not only that cultic life that is sought after but also a cultic purity that seems so necessary to the authors.  Thus, after a description of the priestly institutions, we see two major sections devoted to purity.  The first is a treatise on how to deal with impurity (chapters 11 – 16) and the discussion centers on the problems of childbirth, disease, discharges, and so on.  The second is the Holiness Code (chapters 17-26), and it is here that we find rules on sexual behavior, crimes, rules for priests and festivals, blasphemy, and a final exhortation to honor the Law.  A final chapter (27) is devoted to the redemption of votive gifts.

What is the use of such material in our time?  Well, it depends on the exigencies of your life and living.  Women, homosexual men and women, and people with congenital illnesses or deformities might find plenty here to contest against, and those with certain political agenda will delight in some things and ignore the contextual rest.  Leviticus is not something to ignore.  Its goal is holiness, and keeping that goal in mind will help us orient our reading of the material.  Discernment of the Spirit is crucial here.

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.

Ruth gleans at Boaz's field - Colonial Carving

The introductory verses of this reading succinctly announce the theme of the entire work:  “God is holy – therefore you must be holy as well.”  The text then goes on detailing how such holiness might be obtained by those who choose to follow.  The reading leaves aside texts devoted rules concerning sacrifice and idols to comment on community and economics.  Here it is important to understand that there are no individual economies, but only the economy of the community.  A good example of this is in the book of Ruth where she is able to glean in the fields of Boaz.  The edges of the fields were left to the impoverished, and it was in these places allowed for gleaning that lives could be spared.  Of special note is that this provision was not only for the poor, but for the alien as well.  I wonder if this text might inform our national discussion on Immigration Reform?

The text of the Decalogue is quoted in the next verses, namely prohibitions against theft and false witness.  The argument is the central argument of the entire book.  It is not just that God has said “no” to this activity, but that the activity harms the holiness of the Name of God, and indeed the holiness of God’s people.  Again, the whole community is a concern.  What follows is really a discussion of the balance of righteousness, “you shall not be partial to the poor, or defer the great: with justice you shall judge.”  Against this rather active stance of balance and judgment, the author then speaks about slander, and the verbs that he uses, “you shall not stand over the blood (profit by the blood) of your neighbor,” indicates either a disinterested stance, or a complicit stance with regard to a neighbor’s reputation.  All in the community are called to account.  This sense of social responsibility is made even keener in the following verse, where the author suggests that “you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.”  As current physics suggests, the observer is always a part of the action.  The pericope is completed with the familiar, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  In this Jesus recognized the summation of the Law.

Breaking open Leviticus:

1.     In what ways are you holy?
2.     What contributes to your sense of holiness?
3.     Are there behaviors that detract from it?  Which are they?

Psalm 119:33-40 (He) Legem pone

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, *
and I shall keep it to the end.

Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *
I shall keep it with all my heart.

Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire.

Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.

Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *
give me life in your ways.

Fulfill your promise to your servant, *
which you make to those who fear you.

Turn away the reproach which I dread, *
because your judgments are good.

Behold, I long for your commandments; *
in your righteousness preserve my life.

Appropriately, our attention turns to Psalm 119, a paean to the Law and its benefits.  Artur Weiser described the effect and theme of this psalm as “the word of God and the law of God as the decisive factor in every sphere of life.”[1] Here the verses are a request on the part of the psalmist to be taught by God.  The verbs indicate several actions: teach, give me understanding, make me go, incline my heart, turn my eyes, fulfill your promise, and turn away your reproach.  Each of these makes more real Weiser’s assertion about the Law and the whole spectrum of life.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
  1. How does God teach you about life?
  2. How do you teach others?
  3. What role does the Law play in your life?

1 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.

We continue with a lectio continua from I Corinthians.  Paul depicts himself as a master builder, laboring to lay a theological foundation for the people at Corinth.  He started the work, and now others labor to complete it.  But just as we make this complete identity between the foundation and Paul, he switches the metaphor, for it is Jesus who is the foundation. Such literary devices continue, for now it is the people who are God’s temple, inhabited by that same Spirit that gives Paul the Wisdom to share. 

We skip the material in verses 12-15 (an expansion of the building metaphor) and move onto verse 16, where Paul quickly gives a new focus with the question, “Do you not know?”  The image of Paul the builder, the foundation, and lately Jesus the foundation still swirling in our heads, Paul now asserts something different.  Now it is the people who are God’s temple, inhabited by that same Spirit that gives Paul the very Wisdom he wishes to share.  So now we are not focused on a building, but rather on an indwelling.  What follows has a variety of strands.  If we are indeed the temples, then the following material speaks to Christians and the care of their own bodies – the temple of God.  Or is Paul speaking about the physical destruction of the Temple?  Since the book is dated around 57 CE, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans is some thirteen years in the future.  We are drawn back to the indwelling, an apocalyptic promise of community that is infused with divine presence.  Thus this is not an earthly temple, but rather a heavenly one. 

Paul returns to the notion of Wisdom, and disabuses us of the idea that we are in any sense wise.  He is blunt.  Present wisdom is foolishness.  Two quotations buttress his argument.  The first is from Job 5:13, and the second is from Psalm 94:11, both commenting on the futility of present wisdom.  Finally the argument circles back, obliquely to Paul, and the others who have worked with him, Apollos and Cephas (Peter).  He expands the background of the comment in a way that reminds me of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory:

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven.  “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery, and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord.  And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at he Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling.  But I’ll wager it never happens.  I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are” – her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone – “just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him.  As for me I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”[2]

Paul, like Truman Capote’s cousin gestures in all the actors in addition to Paul, Apollos and Peter, “world, life death, things present, things to come; all is yours.”  But then, just as he has us in his thrall, he inserts the true indwelling, “but you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”  Indeed that is the “today in (our) eyes.”

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What is the foundation of your life?
  2. What is the foundation of your faith?
  3. Can you build on both?  How?

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 today’s Gospel, Jesus continues his Great Instruction on the Mount.  This Sunday’s topics are “Retaliation” (38-42) and “Enemies (43-48). 

Recently we have read in the papers about men who have taken the lives of others over their use of a texting device in a theater, or having the volume of their radio too high, or of just appearing to be bad.  It is into these situations that Jesus inserts himself.  “You have heard that it was said.”  We need to understand an ancient culture here before we can fully understand Jesus’ meaning about “an eye for an eye”.  To our modern hearing this sounds harsh.  Harsh yes, but it was moderated.  Jesus is speaking to a world of blood feuds, revenge and Hatfields and McCoys.  The ancient lex talionis (see Exodus 21:24-25, or Leviticus 24:20) put some limits on what humans could exact from other humans.  Jesus is set to limit even more so.  What must follow from a life in Christ is the ability to stand up to both insult and physical insult.  Matthew remembers Jesus’ life and teaching in a context in which there were sharp divisions and cultural upset.  “Turning the cheek” in such instances was to mark a people who were following a new Law of love.  Jesus enumerates a number of social situations that might require retaliation.  However in an age of persecution and religious strife, the legal option is no option.  As William Albright says, “The disciple is not to expect anything other than what the Servant must endure.”[3]

The second pericope concerns “Enemies.”  The opening quotation is from Leviticus 19:18.  Written in the post-exilic period (see Background on Leviticus, above) a distinction is made between Jews and others.  In Jesus’ meaning, however, all are the neighbor and all are to be loved.  No one is to be considered as “enemy.”  What follows then are images of the divine community: sons (and daughters) of the Heavenly Father, the sun as a benefit to both good and evil, rain on just and unjust.  An emotional response to the first of these pericopes (turn the other cheek) might result in some sense of self-righteousness.  Jesus quickly dispels such a notion.  Loving only those who love you in return is a false image.  Everyone does that.  The question that Jesus poses is “What does the disciple do?”  The Greek word (teleios) that is translated as “true” (“Be true, just as your heavenly Father is true.”) is translated as “perfect” in our translation.  This same word is used to describe the “righteousness” of Noah.  The word is not about moral perfection, which would be impossibility, but rather infers “integrity”, “truth”, and “sincerity.” 

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     Do keep grudges?  Against whom and why?
2.     When did you ever “turn the cheek?”
3.     How did it feel to do so?

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.

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

[1] Weiser, A. (1962). The Psalms, a Commentary. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 740.
[2] Capote, T. (1956). A Christmas Memory, Random House, New York, page 43.
[3] Albright, W. and Mann, C. (1971). The Anchor Bible, Matthew, Introduction, Translation and Notes. Doubleday and Company, Garden City, page 69.


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