Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 5, 2017)

January 30, 2017 | by Robert Gnuse

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

Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 58:1-9a

This oracle comes from a prophet that scholars have designated as Third Isaiah, which they envision as Isa 56-66. Some scholars suggest that these eleven chapters come from one prophet, others suggest several prophets spoke these oracles from 525 BCE to 330 BCE. Our present text appears to be part of a collection of judgment oracles in Isa 56-59, and judgment oracles are not usually found in post-exilic prophets, that is, after 539 BCE. (A few commentators do suggest that these chapters are pre-exilic.) Our prophet may be speaking to a particular situation in the immediate period after the initial return of Jews from Babylonian Exile. Perhaps lethargy in the early post-exilic community has irked the prophet into speaking during the 520’s. This is all very hypothetical.

In our present text the prophet accuses the audience of social injustice, oppressing workers (v. 3), quarreling (v. 4), and superficial fasting (vv. 3-6). Reminiscent of the teachings of Jesus, our prophet calls upon the audience to feed the hungry, take in the homeless, and cloth the naked (v. 7). If our theory of dating the oracles is correct, perhaps returning exiles had begun to oppress the poor Judahites who had remained in the land during the Babylonian Exile (586-539 BCE). The vast majority of Jews had been left behind in Judah living in impoverishment during those years.

I am struck by how the prophet must remind his audience of their traditional values and beliefs, so well expressed in the law codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy, when they had been so incredibly blessed by the opportunity to return from exile to their home in Judah. Their return had been made possible by remarkable events in history, the rise of Cyrus, king of Persia, whom the prophet Second Isaiah (Isa 40-55) viewed as a gift from God, granted them permission to return home. The old law codes firmly called upon Judahites and later Jews to care for the poor, widow, orphan, and foreigner in their midst. But instead they engaged in selfish and quarrelsome behavior. They had forgotten what God had done for them. Isn’t that just like people of any age? They receive great blessings, and then they begrudge someone else a little help. It reminds me too much of those Americans who have been so richly blessed and too often fail to help the poor in this country and elsewhere. I hear people declare that the poor have to earn their way, when so often we who are middle class and upper class have what we possess by not only work but also by very good fortune in our lives.

As a process theologian I envision God as a gracious being who draws us into the future. God offers us choices from which we freely choose. We can choose to be gracious and kind to the poor, or we can choose not to be. It is our choice. But when we make the wrong choice, God offers us new opportunities to move forward, perhaps correcting our past mistakes, our past greediness, our past ungratefulness, our past selfishness. God is gracious, ever seeking to move us as a people forward to a better sense of self-hood and a stronger community. God is in the process with us leading us to a better future, hopefully. So often, it is our choice. If we choose correctly, God will be with us and our “light shall break forth like the dawn” and our “healing shall spring up quickly” (v. 8).

Epistle: 1 Cor 2:1-12

Paul speaks of how he came to the Corinthians in meekness and weakness (vv. 1-3), implying that in the same way Jesus came to this world in a way that the powerful rulers of this world could not understand (v. 8-9). By thus coming to the Corinthians in this fashion, Paul made it possible for the Spirit to work among the Corinthians more effectively (v. 5). Similarly, the Spirit of God works throughout the world.

Paul provides us with an image of the Spirit of God or God working through the world in ways that the world does not understand. The spirit of the world is at odds with the Spirit of God, which in quiet fashion bestows gifts upon those who believe. The world understands power, but God works through meekness and weakness. The Christians of Paul’s age were mostly slaves and Christians. Their religious ultimately conquered the Roman Empire.

Process theologians speak of how God provides a “lure” to lead us into the future by providing us with options or decisions to make in life. We are called upon to make the right decisions, but God is gracious and will continue to provide us with options and opportunities even though we might make the wrong choice. Paul speaks of this Spirit of God as meek and humble in the process of life. As a process theologian I would speak of God leading us into the future in a subtle and unobtrusive fashion. God is part of the process of the universe, and part of human existence. God cannot be easily seen or understood, but is instead a subtle part of the process. Above all, God is within is, not outside us in some distant realm or heaven above.

Paul speaks of this divine presence as meek, and not like the power of this world. Yet this divine presence has a spiritual power that is truly significant.

I like to say that if we truly realize that God is within us and not outside of us, we would take better care of ourselves and our bodies. We would not be as prone to do something wicked, or at least naughty, if we knew that we were dragging God along with us in our behavior. One of the strengths of process theology is to stress the presence of God, God in me, and that should make me act with more seriousness in the everyday actions of my life. Maybe this is what Paul meant when he implies that the meek presence of God in him and in all of us is really spiritually powerful (v. 4).

I like to say to children that if you are thinking to doing something that you shouldn’t do, think of God not as looking down from heaven above at you, so that you could almost hope for a moment God will not be looking at you when you do this. Rather, think of God as inside of you, saying, “No, no! Don’t drag me into this!” Children can understand that. Come to think of it, adults probably can also.

To worship a God of process is to acknowledge that the power of God and God himself/herself is within me.

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20

This portion of the Sermon on the Mount appears to contain five separate sayings, each worthy of a sermon by itself. (vv. 13, 14-16, 17-18, 19, 20). Tell your congregants that at the beginning of your sermon, it will make them nervous. I will tell my parishioners that and then say, “I hope you brought a sack lunch.”

Each of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount may have been a saying that Jesus exposited upon in further fashion, as was the custom of rabbis when they taught their students. What we may have in the biblical text is a collection of Jesus’s sermon topics without the further elaboration or sermon.

The first two sayings about salt and light bear the same message. Christians are in the world as representatives of God, and should bear a testimony with their lives about the love of God. Salt preserves food, light gives guidance. Christians save the world by their loving kindness, and they testify to God by being a beacon of light of love. I would say that each of us is a representative of God, so that when other people see us, they are viewing God. “Act appropriately in your dealing with other people, for you don’t want people think ill of God, do you?” As a process theologian I very seriously view God as being present in the lives of individual human beings, or better said, God is present in our universe through human consciousness, and hence present in our behavior.

Images of salt and lamp were vivid for Jesus’ audience. Salt was the chief condiment for keeping food fresh, especially meat, so that you would have something to eat. The lamp, in an age with no electricity, was a little clay lamp, like a covered pot, that held olive oil and a burning wick. It was the only thing that enabled you to walk around in your house in the dark without hurting yourself.

Being a Jewish Christian, Matthew was most interested in the saying about the fulfillment of Jewish law. Of course, the Sermon on the Mount itself was for Matthew the fullest expression of the “new Jewish Christian Torah.” But the Sermon on the Mount calls for such idealistic loving behavior, one cannot really regard these sayings as literal laws to be kept. Jesus appears to fulfill Jewish laws by so expanding the meaning of the commands that he causes them to explode with an imperative to love that goes beyond the boundaries of simple, nominal behavior. He interiorizes and psychologizes the laws, with a deep expansion that stresses good behavior to do more so than bad behavior to avoid. This is the law written upon human hearts that the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel had envisioned years prior. That would explain why Jesus ultimately says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We must do that which is loving and never say, “Aha, now I have done all that needs to be done, I can rest on my accomplishments.” We are to be totally loving, going beyond the rules and the guidelines, we are to love as though God were actually inside of us… Oh! God is inside of us.