Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 9, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) Psalm 112:1-9 (10) 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16) Matthew 5:13-20

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Today’s scriptures for the most part deal with righteousness. What is true righteousness? The passage from the Sermon on the Mount is the most puzzling. It is clear from many passages, including other passages in Matthew, that Jesus put meeting human needs above literal obedience to some of the laws about the Sabbath. Yet we find him saying: “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” If we read the passage from this perspective, we will suppose that our detailed observance of the law should be more rigorous than that of the scribes and Pharisees.

If we understand the passage in this way, then we must say that Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus is of a man who taught one thing and practiced another. Of course, that is possible. But we should consider other possibilities. The assertion that our righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees is immediately followed by teachings that appear to illustrate what is intended. In my judgment, ending today’s reading at this point is misleading. The next paragraph begins with the requirement that we not only avoid murder, but also avoid hatred. This move from action to inner motivation is the way we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, not by more careful observation of every iota and dot.

Why then this language that suggests extreme literalism and detailed attention to every law? I think that Matthew, and perhaps Jesus as well, was concerned that the more “liberal” view of the law embodied in Jesus’ actions might lead to a more “relaxed” morality. Certainly that has been true in later years. For example, if we “do not have to tithe,” then many, indeed most, give less. For Jesus, if we really love our neighbors as ourselves, we are likely to give a great deal more. The shift of focus from act to motive is not intended to make us less righteous as measured by the law. It is to avoid the idea that once we have given a certain amount we have met our obligations. Jesus’ role is not then to “abolish” the law but to show that its true fulfillment actually requires an internalization that goes far beyond external conformity.

One small point at the beginning of the paragraph supports this reading. What Jesus has not come to do is to “abolish the law and the prophets.” This is a way of describing the Jewish scriptures as a whole. But there is some tension between them. The law in Jesus day was greatly influenced by the prophets. But it also required many religious practices. Today’s passage from Isaiah once more reminds us that the prophets were critical of these.

In this passage we learn that pious Jews were angry because they fasted and prostrated themselves in religious observances without gaining from God the favors they sought. Isaiah tells them that dealing justly with their employees is what God wants. If they will treat the poor fairly, God will hear them and respond to them. We may think of Jesus call for change of motive to be a fulfillment of the prophetic emphasis on how we treat others, especially those who are subject to our exploitation.

In historical fact it was the prophetic movement and the prophetic element in the law that we Christians believe Jesus most clearly fulfilled. However, we need to understand that Jesus may well have understood his teachings as fulfilling the Sabbath law as well. When he violated particular Sabbath laws, he did not speak against them. On the contrary he pointed to the purpose of the Sabbath. “The sabbath is made for man.” The rules laid down for Sabbath observance should serve human beings. When they fail to do so, their purpose takes precedence. The rules are fulfilled when the purpose of the Sabbath is fulfilled as a time of rest and renewal for all.

If we think of law and its fulfillment in this way, we can better appreciate today’s psalm. In one sense it is simply one more recital that God rewards those who do God’s will and punishes those who do not. Often, we know, actual history does not work out that way. In terms of historical events the victors are not always more virtuous than the vanquished.

On the other hand, when we understand that the law is designed for our wellbeing, then the truth is less questionable. Blessed is the man who delights in God’s commandments. There is a coincidence between true human fulfillment and the joyful fulfillment of God’s purposes. It is well with those who deal generously and lends, who conduct their affairs with Justice. We cannot be sure that such people will gain greater wealth than those who are exploitative and stingy, but we can be quite confident that in a profound sense they are happier.

Today’s passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a different tone, indeed, a tone that is somewhat different from much of Paul’s writing as well. It has an ecstatic quality. For Paul, the Christ event has changed everything. His task is to spread the word that this change has occurred and that his hearers can, with him, participate in the new possibility. Here he is reflecting about how he convinced some people in Corinth to enter this new world.

Apparently, after he left some people expressed skepticism about his message. They noted that he had provided no arguments and that he had no great status in the world. The same seemed to be true of the Jesus he proclaimed. Also his message seemed strange if not outrageous.

Paul agrees with all the charges. He does not defend his message with skilled argumentation. And he does not claim high status for himself or for Jesus. Indeed it is the crucified Jesus he proclaims. One can hardly imagine a lower status than that! Paul recognized this figure as “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.”

Paul’s message is that God’s wisdom is the reverse of human wisdom. It is what is despised in the world that reveals God. He speaks, however, of “demonstration of the Spirit and power.” One can only suppose that Paul had what we would call remarkable “charisma” that generated intense feelings among some of his hearers. His message was that the world they had known and the values they had been taught were in fact not the reality. Perhaps there were healings and speaking in tongues. In any case Paul seems confident that those who had been through this experience knew the reality of the Spirit. They were prepared to share with him the reversal of the world’s values and the assurance that a new age had come.