The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 29 January 2017

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
I Corinthians 1:18-31
Saint Matthew 5:1-12

Background: Blessedness

If we look behind the roots of the English word “Blessedness” we discover a variety of not only meaning, but intent as well. If it is used to translate the Latin benedicere, or the Greek eulogein, it means literally “to speak well of”. It also used to translate the Hebrew verb brk, which means “to bend the knee” or to worship. Thus the word is used to cover a multitude of uses. The Hebrew usage is usually directed toward God alone, so that worship (bending of the knee) is in God’s honor. So we can speak of worship as “speaking well of God’s name”, and thus come to the Latin understanding of the word. Thus the direction of the word is God directed, but in some usage is reversed as human kind blesses God, or as God blesses human kind through the words of the priests of the temple. When blessed is used of or for humankind, its meaning is more like “happiness”, the state that one experiences being blessed by God. Perhaps a more complete word study on all the usages of what we call “blessedness” might open up a wider understanding of how the Beatitudes might be read and comprehended.

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

It is a line of verse that Micah is best known for, and one of the best from any of the prophets, perhaps. However, we are bidden to journey through the verses that lead up to it and to form a foundation for understanding it. Micah introduces us to a series of courtroom proceedings with an imperative, “Hear!” This is a repetition of earlier commands in chapter 1:2, and 3:1. The first chapter issues a command to all the people of the earth, while the third chapter is a command to the leaders of Israel. In our reading it is a command to Israel to listen to what God has to say, actually to witness to. Earlier I referenced a courtroom, and these initial two verses describe those who are to hear the suit – the mountains and enduring foundations of the earth. This is a classic riv form, which emulates the courtroom and its testimonies. God makes inquiries, “what have I done to you, how have I wearied you?” And then God reviews actual actions on the behalf of Israel: Moses Aaron, and Miriam, the blessings of Balaam, the crossing of the Jordan from Shittim to Gilgal. What Israel has forgotten, it must remember.

At verse 6 we hear a new, unidentified voice that makes a series of proposals for answering the queries of the Lord, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What follows is a review of the traditional means of appeasement, offerings and sacrifices. It even extends to that which is forbidden, “shall I give my firstborn for my transgression?” The answer is immediate and succinct. “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.”

Breaking open Micah:
1.          What does God want Israel to hear?
2.          Have you wearied God, and how?
3.         How can you “do justice”?

Psalm 15 Domine, quis habitabit?

     Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? *
who may abide upon your holy hill?
2      Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, *
who speaks the truth from his heart.
3      There is no guile upon his tongue;
he does no evil to his friend; *
he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.
4      In his sight the wicked is rejected, *
but he honors those who fear the Lord.
5      He has sworn to do no wrong *
and does not take back his word.
6      He does not give his money in hope of gain, *
nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
7      Whoever does these things *
shall never be overthrown.

The psalm, which serves as a response to the first reading, also asks a question, “Who will dwell on your holy mountain?” In the first verse we see the whole gamut of living with God, either as a nomad, “Who may dwell (sojourn) in your tabernacle (tent)” – a remnant of itinerant life in the desert, and “who may abide (dwell) upon your holy hill (Mt. Zion)?” – a more permanent situation, taken from a more urban perspective. Whether the hearer is pilgrim or resident, the psalm addresses both. As in Micah, answers are provided in terms of the characterization of those who may sojourn or dwell – “he who walks blameless, who speaks the truth,” and so on. All of these characterizations focus on the relationship that any person might have with neighbor or family, and it provides descriptors of what it means to live in community. Such are the requirements of right living, and this is how the righteous stand firm.

Breaking open Psalm 15:
1.     Where is God’s dwelling for you?
2.     In what ways do you “live” there as well?
3.    What does God require of you in relationship to your neighbor?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 1:18-31

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

We are in the midst of a continuing reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians. In the readings that preceded this one, Paul outlines what he thinks is the problem of the Corinthian church – factionalism. And now he describes a solution to the problem by expounding on the cross. He is not unaware of the cultural context within which he delivers this message, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” and in a typically Pauline manner contrasts foolishness with wisdom, offering examples of both. The synthesis of his argument is simply this, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” There is a familiar theme of weakness actually being an example of strength, “God chose what is low.” This is a reversal of what an educated person might expect, which leads Paul to the apex of his examples, the choice of Jesus Christ. If we are to boast of anything, then it must be boasting of our knowledge of him.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. In what ways is your faith “foolish”?
  2. How do you reconcile this with your rational mind?
  3. What do you boast about in life?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

In spite of popular depictions of the so-called Sermon on the Mount, this was not delivered to a large group of people, but rather was delivered as instruction to the disciples, apart from others. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” This is no new Moses delivering a new law, but rather a rabbi seeking the renewing nature of the wilderness – the proper setting for teaching the disciples. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew[1], William Albright characterizes three approaches to this teaching: 1) Perfectionist Legalism, 2) An Impossible Ideal which leads to knowing a need for God, and 3) an Interim Ethic. The question we need to ask is, “how is this the Gospel, how is this Good News?” Matthew has set down a pattern in which readings and references to the Hebrew Scriptures informs us and shapes our thinking about Jesus and his teachings. Here it is the Law that forms the template of our understanding. It is a sense of freedom that is proclaimed here that moves beyond a legalistic understanding of what Jesus is teaching. The Kingdom of God is upon us, now what shall we do? It is a question that bears a remarkable resemblance to the question that the psalmist poses, “Lord, who may abide in your holy tabernacle?” Now the preacher has to respond to the demand that these beatitudes make – where is blessedness?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     In what ways are you blessed?
2.     In what ways are you happy?
3.    How is there a difference?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; 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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Albright, W. (1971), Matthew – Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Doubleday & Company, New York.


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