Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (February 19, 2017)

February 13, 2017 | by Robert Gnuse

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Leviticus 19:1-2 & 9-18 Psalm 119:33-40 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 & 16-23 Matthew 5:38-48

Old Testament Lesson: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Christians too quickly say that the book of Leviticus is a compendium of cultic laws that are no longer binding on the Christian by virtue of being part of the old law that passed away with the coming of Christ and the new covenant. But there are a number of social guidelines and imperatives in Leviticus that are good to heed in any culture and in any age. We could say that they are not laws that are binding upon the Christian, but they are “paranesis” or moral encouragement, comparable to what we find in the letters of Paul and the later Paulists. In other words, these laws might be seen as saying to us, “If you really are a Christian, wouldn’t you want to follow these guidelines to show the love of God to other people.

In verses 9-10 we see the gleaning laws that are designed to help the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner in the land. You do not harvest all your grain or pick all your grapes, but you leave some for the poor. A society that provides for its poor is a society that engenders a respect for all people.

In verses 11-13 we hear the enumerations of various commands in the Ten Commandments, also universal moral guidelines. We are enjoined not to steal, lie, swear falsely. Did people really revile a deaf person or put a stumbling block in front of a blind person (v. 14)? No . . .! But the commands are a rhetorical way of saying just as you would not hurt a deaf or a blind person, neither should you hurt a poor person.

Courtroom integrity is commended to the judges, who really were the old men in a village who would act as a court of justice when grievances were brought to them for settlement. It is interesting that they are enjoined not to be partial to either a poor person out of sympathy or a rich person out of fear or hope for a bribe (v. 15). Here we observe our own understanding of how justice is to be blind and thus be fair.

With the imperatives not to hate your neighbor or seek revenge (vv. 17-18) we can see the sayings of Jesus. When you read, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” we find the origin of Jesus’ sayings, especially his Golden Rule. Jesus is very much rooted in the teaching tradition of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These are values for all people in all times and places.

As a process theologian I focus on the words, “For I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2), a common refrain in Leviticus. It speaks of the Lord as present in the lives of people, present in the very existence of each individual. God is holy, and this demands a holy response. But even more, the passage that the holy God is in our midst leading us to holiness, to a fair and just society, to a mode of living that encourages us to treat all people with respect, proclaims a holy God who is deeply present in our hearts and minds. This is not an external holy God demanding a response, this is a holy God inside us and motivating us. This is how ancient Israelites and Jews may have understood the holiness of God, for it was to them an overwhelming and consuming force. This holy God is truly a God of process who has entered into the process of the world and human existence, and this God is leading us onward by inspiring us to holiness, justice, and love. If we stress that not only does the holiness of God inspire our behavior, but that its presence causes our behavior, we are seriously focusing on these passages from a process theological perspective.

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

In these passages we may observe the humility of Paul in his missionary ministry. In v. 10 he freely acknowledges that the foundation laid by him is being built upon by someone else. It would be so easy for him to be possessive of his missionary work and the church that he started, but he freely admits that someone else is developing his ministry. What is important to him is that the foundation, the message of Jesus risen from the dead, remains at the heart of that foundation. In vv. 21-23 he acknowledges by name other leaders, Apollos and Cephas, and he tells the Corinthians not to brag about any particular leader, because of their work for the people and for Christ. Sometimes it is difficult for a pastor, who been serving a particular church for many years, to retire or leave that parish. (I have been a vacancy pastor at one church since 1989.) It is likewise difficult for people to accept a new pastor who follows either the founding minister or a minister who served for many years. At this point we do well to look at the words of this text. The text reminds us that life moves on, that people and institutions change and develop, and all things evolve. We then remind ourselves that God is in this process of change, leading us and luring us to the future with new possibilities and new challenges. We must not hold tightly to the past, but accept the future into which God is leading us.

In the rest of the pericope Paul speaks about the nature of that foundation that undergirds the church. A firm foundation will survive the vicissitudes of life and change, and this is true for individual churches as well as larger denominations. For Paul this means the focus must be on the message about Jesus, the Gospel, and other issues must take a rear seat. Too often we as individuals and as a group focus too much on our church or denominational guidelines, special church programs, etc., all of which are fine, but they are not the heart of our mission. The heart of our mission is to tell people that God loves them and has dramatically testified to that by being present in the death and resurrection of Jesus. By this salvific act God not only forgives sins, but God makes the ultimate identification with the human condition by being totally present in our painful human existence. The God whom we worship knows full well what it means to suffer. I think that today that latter message may actually be more important than the former. I have often said that the purpose of the church is to tell people that God loves them just the way they are, and if we are not doing that, we might as well close up shop and go home. Compared to that message, everything else, no matter how wonderful it may be, is simply dross (I usually use a stronger word). God is in the process of our human existence, God loves us and calls upon us to love ourselves and each other, and proclaiming that message is the real reason we clergy have our jobs.

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48

In this particular section of the Sermon on the Mount one could possibly tease out as many as ten Jesus’ sayings (vv. 39a, 39b, 40, 41, 42,44-45a, 45b, 46, 47, 48), but they are woven together into a coherent message about loving your enemies. Among other things, Jesus implies that loving your enemies will testify to your identity as a follower of Jesus, and the subtle implication is that you may win your enemies as your friends.

Two sayings deserve particular attention for their subtle ironic meaning, or even humor, a characteristic of much of the Jesus tradition, though we do not often notice it. In v. 39 Jesus says to turn the other cheek in response to someone who slaps you. What we do not know today is that in the east Mediterranean world an antagonist should slap you with the open palm of his right hand on your left cheek. That was honorable. To hit a person with the right hand on the right cheek meant using the back of the fist. To hit a person thusly was dishonorable and was meant only to be used on slaves or in combat. So when Jesus says to turn the other cheek, it means once your left cheek has been slapped, turn your face to the left so as to force your antagonist to backfist your right cheek. If your opponent hit you in anger initially, he might freeze and not backfist your right cheek, lest he dishonor himself. It might defuse his anger as he observes your cleverness. Or at least, the audience would sense the cleverness of Jesus’ saying.

When Jesus says that we should carry the baggage a second mile, he is referring to a custom that existed in Judah during Roman rule. The Romans had a law that said any soldier could force a Jew to carry his “baggage” or armor for one Roman mile. If a Jew refused, the Roman solider could kill him on the spot. If the friends of the Jew killed the Roman soldier in response, the next day a Roman unit would come to the village and kill everyone in it. Furthermore, the Roman mile, or stadia, was longer than the Jewish mile. On the Sabbath some pious Jews would not walk more than a mile during the day, lest that constitute work. Needless to say, Romans loved to force Jews to carry their armor on the Sabbath simply to denigrate Jewish customs. Jews did not care for this law. So Jesus tells his audience to be willing to carry the Roman soldier’s armor for two miles. Just as the Jewish audience is ready to boo and hiss Jesus, they remember another Roman guideline. If a Roman soldier demands that a Jew carry his armor more than a mile, he would be sternly disciplined by his Roman commander. Jesus’ audience then envisions an almost comic situation in which the Jew graciously offers to continue carrying the baggage or armor, and the Roman soldier pleads with him not to do so. It probably never happened, but the image is comic. Of course, the point of the saying is that we should be willing to help even those people whom we do not like or even hate, for perhaps we might ultimately win their friendship.

In general, these sayings call for a loving response by Christians even to their enemies. Such behavior can win respect and perhaps even friendship. It, at least, calms down the anger of an antagonist who might be confronting you. This is in tune with the Old Testament saying, “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov 15:1). As a process theologian I would say that such situations are classic examples of where God offers you choices in the flow of existence, and God attempts to “lure” you into making a decision that normally a person would not make, a loving response to an act of anger perpetrated upon you. To make that decision offered by God may lead you into a more meaningful and real existence in the flow of your life. In fact, you may wish to see God in the antagonist who confronts challenging you to make the loving response. Thus, God is truly in the process, for God is in you and in the other person.