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


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