Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 12, 2017)

January 30, 2017 | by Robert Gnuse

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20 Psalm 119:1-8 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Matthew 5:21-37

Old Testament Lesson: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

It is quite a dramatic choice offered by the biblical author: life and prosperity or death and adversity (v. 15). Choose one! Later in v. 19 our author declares, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” The entire book of Deuteronomy stresses human free will and the importance in choosing to obey the Torah, the laws of God. I am immediately reminded of how process theology describes how God “lures” us into the future by providing choices for each “actual entity” to choose in the present “moment of becoming.” Stated in theological terms, we would say that God offers each of us opportunities and choices in life, and we are called upon to choose wisely. Graciously God will offer new choices and opportunities, even when we make bad decisions.

Sometimes Christians are tempted to read the language of Deuteronomy and suppose that ancient Israelites and modern Jews believe that they save themselves by keeping the laws. Deuteronomy did not teach that. That book, as well as the rest of the Old Testament, declares that God saved Israel in the exodus as a unilateral act of salvation on behalf of totally helpless slaves. The ancient and modern Jews believe that God has made them a chosen people, and out of gratitude they will want to keep the Law. With that assumption our present text is declaring that as a chosen member of God’s people you will want to keep the law. Keeping the Law will bring you blessings, but breaking the law will bring you problems! But this is a response you make after you have become one of the elect people. Does life really work so neatly? Do the obedient people get blessed in life, and the ill-behaved folk get punished? No! Our biblical author knew that. The language of Deuteronomy is rhetoric, designed to encourage people to act in a loving and just fashion. It is not an empirical description of reality. The biblical authors understood that, and for that reason we have the book of Job, the laments of Jeremiah (Jer 11-20), and the Lament Hymns in the Psalter which recognize that often the just indeed suffer unjustly in our world.

The biblical authors proclaimed that God saved them in the exodus experience and the law was their way of showing thanks to God. They also believed that the law provided a guideline for life that would enable them, for the most part, to live in harmony with each other in a fair and just society. That was the blessing of obedience. Their understanding is like that of the Christian faith. We Christians believe we are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The “paranesis” or encouragement we find in the writings of Paul as well as the later Paulinists and General Epistles essentially declares that if we appreciate what God has done for us, we will want to show our gratitude by living a righteous and loving life-style, which will generally bring us a well-balanced, meaningful, and happy life. Both Jews and Christians view God in the same way. We both realize we owe our existence to God’s grace, and we want to “choose wisely” as the opportunities and decisions of life come our way.

Old Testament Lesson: Sirach 15:15-20

As the author of the text in Deuteronomy spoke of choices, so also does the author of the book of Sirach (also known as Ben Sira and Ecclesiasticus). Sirach has a masterful way of speaking about the dramatic choices we make in life. “He has placed before you fire and water, stretch out your hand for whichever you choose” (v. 16). That’s pretty dramatic language. It is like the language of Deuteronomy, rhetoric designed to encourage moral behavior. It is not meant to be an empirical description of reality. In the next verse, our author declares that the choice is between life and death. The author of Sirach is greatly influenced by the language and the text of Deuteronomy.

In v. 15 our author states, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments.” The ancient Israelites and modern Jews stress free will very much, more so than Christians. They have a doctrine of “actual sin,” but no real concept of “original sin.” The foundation for a concept of original sin is found in the writings of Paul, and the actual language of original sin, actual sin, sins of omission, and sins of commission was crafted by Augustine in the fifth century CE. We have to keep this in mind when we read the Old Testament; the doctrine of original sin had not yet evolved. However, there is value in reading the Old Testament and especially reading passages like this one in Sirach. Today, too often, people do not want to take responsibility for their mistakes. They blame society, their parents, their environment, or whatever. There is truth in these statements, but they get used too much, I believe. Ultimately, people need to be told that they are free, that they must make responsible decisions in their lives, and they must take responsibility for their choices and their mistakes. I teach college students. A lot of them need to be reminded of these basic observations. We need to preach freedom and responsibility from the pulpit. Yes, we still believe in original sin, that doctrine of human finitude and environmental pressure (as Luther said, “the “world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh”). But we really need to tell people that they are free and with freedom comes responsibility, including taking responsibility for their own bad decisions.

Process thought stresses freedom by observing that each “actual entity” makes choices as it is “lured” into the future. Stated theologically, God offers us choices and possibilities constantly. We must choose wisely throughout our life. As Sirach said, “he left them in the power of their own free choice” (v. 14).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

In this pericope we find a classic metaphor often used by Christians. Paul refers to the stages of Christian development by use of the images of milk and solid food. He declares that he taught or “fed” the Corinthian Christians with milk, that is the “basics” of Christian belief because they were not ready for solid food by virtue of their quarreling and jealousy. Thus, he equates the stages of development in the Christian faith according to moral behavior, loving Christian interactions. We would assume that the milk refers to the basic simple Christian Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a salvific event. We can speculate wildly as to what solid food would subsequently mean, and Christians have speculated frequently over the years. Second century Gnostic Christians thought that such solid food was spiritual knowledge about the secret names for God and the realization that the world was illusionary. We view their suggestions as nonsense or heresy. Medieval mystics believed that such solid food was a deeper understanding of God and a vision of the beatific reality. We respect them but do not teach such ideas in the parish. Modern scholarly Christians view solid food as a greater understanding of the background of the biblical text and hence deeper insight into the meaning of particular texts. I favor that perception a little. But the bottom line is that we do not know what Paul meant by solid food, and whether it would be moral teachings or theological profundities. What we can sense is that Paul probably believed that those Christians who were ready for solid food would demonstrate greater Christian love in their lives.

What his language has come to mean for many, though not all Christians, is that solid food refers to a deep spiritual awareness of God within a Christian that leads a to the development of sanctification in that Christian’s life with a resultant holier form of human behavior. This is believed and practiced by Christians in the Holiness traditions, often including Methodists and Pentecostals. I respect that view, though I do not believe it personally. I do not believe I can become holier, for I remain totally sinful (my Lutheran roots are showing), but I can engage more consistently in loving behavior toward other people.

As a process theologian I look at Paul’s language of moving from milk to solid food and see it as describing evolutionary processes that occur on many different levels. I do stress how the metaphor can describe the development of Christian education, simple book-learning, that enables a person to understand more about the biblical text. It can also mean a deepening psychological awareness of God’s presence in someone’s life, sometimes with deep meditative reflectiveness. But I think most important for our modern age, it might mean the development of a greater passion for serving and helping others in our world and the ability to see the presence of Christ in other human beings. (If we see Christ in other people, we will be less inclined to be quarrelsome, as Paul directly mentions in our text.) As a process theologian I would see all of these transformations as an evolutionary advance in the life of a Christian, which is drawn forward by the presence of God in each and every Christian.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37

This section comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew and so contains a collection of sayings. These verses appear to have seven distinct units (vv. 21-22, 23-24, 25-26, 27-28, 29-30, 31-32, 33-37), each worthy of a sermon.

When Jesus interprets the command not to murder as also including hatred and anger, he demonstrates his tendency to deepen the meaning of the old laws, to psychologize or interiorize them, and to stress the positive rather than the negative—what we should do in an attitude of love rather than what we should avoid. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will tell his audience not to hate but to love their enemies (5:44).

When Jesus says leave your gift at the altar and first be reconciled with someone that you have a grievance with (vv. 23-24), he gives us insight into the petition in the Lord’s Prayer about forgiveness. When we say forgive us our sins, as we forgive others, the innuendo that Jesus imparted in this petition is that we are asking God to forgive us only after we have forgiven others first. If Christians prayed the prayer with this awareness, maybe they would be more inclined to make up with other people with whom they have conflict at work and at home, especially their relatives. (I find that people have the hardest time letting go of old family grievances.) This could be the focus of the entire sermon.

What follows next are four “impossible sayings.” “Hard sayings,” such as the imperative to love your enemies, are difficult but not impossible to keep. Jesus really means for his disciples to try to obey these imperatives. But an “impossible saying” or hyperbole, is a teaching device found also among the rabbis, and it is not to be taken literally, but usually is a springboard to further discourse. Thus, the saying that declares desire is the same as adultery is not to be taken literally, since it is impossible for men not to do such, but the imperative encourages men to be more circumspect in how they regard women in general. In vv. 29-30 clearly the encouragement to pluck out your eye or cut off a body part is not meant to be taken literally, but it is a strong rhetorical imperative to act in a circumspect fashion throughout life.

The divorce sayings in all three synoptic gospels connect divorce with adultery, and Christians often have taken these guidelines literally and excluded divorced members from their church fellowship. But readers of the text often forget an important aspect. When Jesus spoke in Palestine, women could not divorce their husbands. Men could divorce women, and during a period of time from 30 BCE to 40 CE divorce guidelines made it easier for men to divorce their wives, even for such a petty offense as being a poor cook. Jesus may have intended his original saying to protect women from being thrown out on the streets by men seeking a younger, prettier wife, by condemning divorce in general. The clause “except on the ground of unchastity,” is unique to Matthew and may have been added by him to provide a practical guideline for when divorce could occur but also to tighten the guidelines so as to limit the number of divorces among later Jewish Christians. Again, the protection of the women may have been a primary objective of Matthew. We should sense in this passage an attempt by Jesus and the gospel writer both to strike a blow for the rights of women.

The prohibition on oaths does not really seek to prohibit oaths, as is evidenced by the last verse, wherein the encouragement really is for the Christian to be such a truth-teller that an oath would not be demanded of him or her.

As a process theologian I would stress the passion of Jesus in addressing the human condition with his commentary or midrash on the ten commandments here in the Sermon on the Mount. This is God trying to provide moral encouragement to people by living with them and teaching an intense morality of love and commitment to other people.