Monday, January 24, 2011

February 6, 2011. Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.

© 2011 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect

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

With the collect we ask for abundance and freedom.  Isaiah emphasized that abundance and freedom come at a cost, not just as a result of  our piety:

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,

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

One of the best known political self-appointed prophets of our time has said that people who speak of “social justice” are using the code language of communists and socialists.   We would have to apply an exacto knife to Isaiah’s words to make that particular modern prophet  feel good.

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.

What political priorities would please God according to Isaiah?  

It is standard to reply to one who speaks of justice demands, “You have quit preaching and gone to meddling.”  

Some Christians pride themselves on never mixing religion and politics: according to Isaiah, both their religion and their politics are suspect.

Psalm 112:1-9, (10)

One might initially think  Psalm 112 is at cross purposes with Isaiah.   The psalm promises, “Wealth and riches will be in their house” – speaking of those who have great delight in keeping God’s commandments.    But the psalmist does not let us pick and choose which commandments we will follow.

  • The righteous are merciful and full of compassion. (verse 4)
  • It is good for them to be generous in lending *
    and to manage their affairs with justice (verse 5)
  • They have given freely to the poor, *
    and their righteousness stands fast for ever; (verse 9)

1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)

Several colleagues manifest the spiritual gifts that Saint Paul touts . Listen to those gifts in two comments of  The Rev. Reynolds Cheney. with whom I was honored to serve on the Standing Commission on Human Affairs in the 1994-97 triennium.  

  1. Reynolds Cheney explained the Commission on Human Affairs' agenda as a struggle for the souls of our people vis-à-vis the values of our culture and the values of our church. "We are too absorbed by the values of power and being big.  We reward people for being successful in the values of the culture.  We need the standards of the servant community, not a success community."

       From the Minutes for the  Oct. 12-15, 19995 meeting  of the Standing Commission on Human Affairs

    and more specifically in Cheney’s example from parish life:

  2. A vestry member had a modest income from raising and harvesting pecans, yet gave generously not only of her money but also her compassionate service to anyone in need. She was one of the first women to join the vestry. At one meeting, a general complained about giving to the church, especially any money going beyond the parish itself. "The problem is one of control," the general said. When we give money beyond our parish, we don't have any control over how that money is spent!"
    "No," the new vestry member replied, gently but firmly. "The problem is not one of control. When I give my money to the church, I give it to God. I don't need to control what the vestry or the diocese or the national church does with it. I trust that they will do what should be done with the Lord's money. The problem is not control, but faith. You need more faith that God will take our offerings and do with them far more than we could ever dream."

    From the minutes for the March 14-16, 1996 meeting the Standing Commission on Human Affairs

Matthew 5:13-20

Some of what Matthew reports Jesus saying is contrary to Jesus’ own practice.  Here Jesus says poignantly, “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”; yet elsewhere Jesus frequently violates the law and the prophets as the religious leaders of his own generation understood them.   He spent major time with sinners, and preferred their company.  He made himself unclean by touching and healing lepers.  He healed on the Sabbath.  He even harvested food on the Sabbath.  Even against his own inclinations, he healed the importunate widow.

The standard “way around” this seeming contradiction is to emphasize that Jesus as God’s son “fulfilled” the law through sacrificing himself on the cross, “worthy is the lamb that was slain”…..   Saint Paul certainly stressed that we are saved not by our merits, but by Christ’s.  

That tact seems a smokescreen when used to deal with the apparent contradictions to be found in this passage from Matthew.

The final sentence offers a better way around the apparent contradiction:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

From the perspective of the four gospel writers, the scribes and the Pharisees were a misguided lot in that they substituted ritual obedience for the obedience that springs from the heart.   In the same chapter, at verse 38, Jesus says “You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say   whosoever strikes you on your  right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  

In amplifying “the law” Jesus changes the law.   He did the same in disagreeing with Moses about divorce.   Moses allowed it, but Jesus did not.

Matthew concludes his account of Sermon on the Mount two chapters later:

And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings,
the people were astonished at his doctrine.
For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

An author originates, creates; a scribe merely copies.

After  I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation*,  Dr. James D. McMillan, head of the department, counseled me:   “Well done, but understand this.  Before your dissertation, you earned  praise by showing how well you know the best of what others know.  In your dissertation and hereafter others will expect you to know the best of what others know, but they will read you and respect you most for what new you can add.  That will be the source of your authority.  [Italics mine]

Jesus seems to be making that point regarding the law.   It is not enough to know the law.  It is not enough to follow every jot and tittle of the law.   If you have become a new creature, the law will be written on your heart and will be manifest in your loving behavior in ways you have not even yet seen or imagined.

*Dickens’ Use of Language for  Protest, University of Alabama,  Dissertation Abstracts International 32 (1971): 913A.

See also


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Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

Your lections are very interesting and popular!