Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 2, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Micah 6:1-8 Psalm 15 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Matthew 5:1-12

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Beginning with Jesus’ call immediately after his baptism we have been asking how he understood his mission in order to throw light on what we who want to follow him are now called to be and do. Since what we call the Old Testament was Jesus’ Scripture, we can assume that his understanding of his mission was largely formed by it. We can also assume that it was the prophetic message in that scripture that chiefly guided him. The Micah passage is a classical expression of the message we have been reading in Isaiah. Against the standard religious practice of his day, Micah once again cries out that God cares nothing for that. God’s concern is for justice and mercy.

The gospel writers emphatically located Jesus in this tradition. His name for that for which the prophets hoped was the basileia ton theou or, in Matthew’s version, basileia ton ouranon. The standard translations are “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” I have explained why I prefer to speak of the divine or heavenly commonwealth – the place where God’s will is done.

Jesus did not do away with the future tense. We still pray for its coming. Clearly there is no earthly political region (basileia) that realizes this ideal. Nevertheless, what is different in Jesus message is that this ideal is already being realized. He says it is “at hand.” Even in his lifetime, to follow him was to take part in this new reality. His table fellowship already realized it.

Paul does not use the term basileia. But he addresses those who followed Jesus both in terms of their hope and also their realized situation. These communities, like the table fellowship of Jesus, were already a foretaste of the promised salvation. That is clear in all of Paul’s letters, but the passage assigned for today is fully explicit.

These Christian communities rejected and reversed the ways of the world. Like Jesus’ table fellowship, they were open to all who would join. Those who were generally excluded from respectable society were welcome. The roles participants played in these Pauline communities were not dependent on their wealth or social status.

Paul also stresses that their beliefs were different from the beliefs respected in either the Jewish or the Greek world. The communities were generally composed of persons who had little learning. But Paul believed that what they now understood about human beings and society was in fact wiser than what was taught in the schools and synagogues. It was the wisdom of God brought to them through the life and teaching of Jesus. By being transformed by that reversal, they make themselves foolish in the eyes of the world. But they find, in fellowship with others who are also trying to live by that reversal, a new kind of community in which God’s purposes have a realization they lack elsewhere.

The passage from Matthew is the beginning of the most extended report on the actual teaching of Jesus that we have – the Sermon on the Mount. It supports and justifies Paul’s conviction that Jesus taught a wisdom that appears foolish from the worldly perspective.  The world, then and now, celebrates the rich and famous, considering them the fortunate ones. Jesus concludes an unlikely list of those who are blessed with the startling statement: “blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

In other words those whom we consider most unfortunate are singled out by Jesus as those who are at a deeper level most fortunate. If we needed further evidence that Jesus located his mission in the prophetic tradition, we find it here. Why are the persecuted the most fortunate? It is because in a similar way “men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Jesus calls us uncompromisingly to enter the prophetic tradition of Israel, the one long-lasting tradition in human history that calls for a reversal of the social, political and economic values that are otherwise universally accepted. True wisdom is not what is taught in universities. True wealth is not material possessions. True power is not the ability to force people to do one’s will. Communities based on this deep reversal are “at hand.” We can take part in them as a foretaste of God’s hope for the whole world. Jesus understood his mission to be to proclaim and realize this possibility. Paul continued that mission in Jesus’ name.

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is emphatically in the prophetic tradition, but it is not simply a repetition of what is found in earlier prophets. His call is more radical – some would say unrealistic. To hold such difficult ideals certainly causes problems that more “reasonable” ideals do not. But however we evaluate Jesus in his difference from other prophetic teachers, we first need to consider the difference.

In one way or another, the prophets repeatedly tell us that it is the just and righteous person who is blessed. Jesus says something different. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” This could be read as a lowering of standards. But this verse is found in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, where the bar of righteousness is raised. Anger is as bad as murder.  Simply desiring another man’s wife is already to have committed adultery. True righteousness is found in one’s desires and motives rather than in one’s actions. For such righteousness we can hunger and thirst. Full attainment is another matter. This by itself makes legalism impossible, although many Christians have not recognized how wrong that pattern is for them.

It is fashionable in liberal and progressive circles to deplore the failure of the church to continue the mission of Jesus. There is, indeed a great gap between the vision to which we are formally committed and the institutions in which we find ourselves. We read some chapters of the church’s history with disgust and horror. It is right that we do so. As the church expanded and its distinctiveness from the world decline, the prophetic tradition which was its source and inspiration needed to be turned upon it. The prophets consistently criticized the religious leadership of their day, and whenever religious leaders support and even share in an unjust status quo, the prophetic tradition calls again for that criticism. Of course, it is not leadership that calls for prophetic denunciation; it is the use of leadership to oppose God’s will.

But a danger of the prophetic spirit is always to note how empty the glass is and not how full. The church throughout its history has nurtured communities in which all are welcome and given opportunity for leadership to those of low social status.  Sometimes congregations whose teachings are far from prophetic nevertheless create inclusive communities of believers in which service and faith count for more than public prestige. Sometimes such communities nurture persons who discover the prophetic message of justice and give themselves to it with deep passion. It is as important to witness to the authentically Christian aspects of these congregations as to note with pain the gap between their message and that of Jesus and Paul.  

During every period of its life the church has proclaimed ideals of peace and justice that have stirred the hearts of many. It often provides the norms by which its own actions must be condemned. Sometimes liberals suppose that these norms are simply human ones for which we do not need the support of the prophetic tradition. But if we look more carefully, we will find that where the church is silent, these ideals fade. In our own country today, the goal of wealth is unashamedly dominant, and the call for Christians to be radically countercultural is profoundly important.  The aim to be spiritual and not religious is in some degree the aim not to be bothered by the call to be in the world but not of it. As the church’s influence fades, the call to justice and peace fades with it.

A caveat is important in our multi-religious society. There are more and more followers of another prophet, Mohammed in this country.  It appears that more of them are more serious about the whole of his message than seems to be the case among contemporary Christians. Perhaps the rising voice of the mosque will fill some of the space being vacated by the declining voice of the church. We Christians may rejoice that Muslims do not consider their faith to reject or replace Jesus. They accord to him the highest honor. Perhaps they will prove more faithful disciples than many who call themselves Christian.

Further, there is the continuing tradition of those who gave birth to the prophetic movement. Judaism survives alongside its daughters. It continues to produce prophets who criticize aspects of what Jews are doing in the world today as well as hold before the wider society the call to justice. They, too, can appreciate Jesus when they encounter him as one of their prophets rather than as the supernatural being of so much of later Christianity. They still have much to teach us, just as Islam does.

In that connection it is worthwhile looking carefully at the Psalm for today. It is a short rehearsal of the righteous life of ordinary people. Consider the content. Most of it is basic morality with which we will all readily agree. We should tell the truth and not injure others. But one item stands out because some centuries ago we Christians decided we knew better than the biblical teaching. The psalmist lists taking interest on loans alongside taking bribes against the innocent as especially important evils to be avoided. Islam has wrestled more responsibly with economic systems that are not based on interest. Islamic countries are striving to maintain their different economic system in obedience to their scripture against pressure from the “Christian” nations to conform to modern secular norms.

Now, at last, thoughtful secular students of the financial system built on interest are becoming aware of its built-in tendency to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor. They are also recognizing that it is inherently unstable, causing economic crises of ever growing magnitude. We are paying a high price for valuing our secular wisdom as superior to that found in the Bible. It would be nice to think that conservative biblicists would seize the opportunity to reaffirm the teaching of the Bible. Sadly, some Christian “conservatives” are more interested in conserving our capitalist economic system than the teachings of the Bible.