The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A), 9 February 2020

February 9, 2020 | by Paul S. Nancarrow

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

The readings assigned for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany continue the seasonal emphasis on the early ministry of Jesus, with a second block of teaching from the Sermon on the Mount and related teachings on the right way to keep the commandments. 

Isaiah 58:1-12 is an extended meditation on right and wrong fasting. While we often think of fasting specifically as abstinence from food, in this context it refers to a more general adoption of a posture of humility before God. This particular oracle is generally dated to the time of return from exile and restoration of worship and civic life in Jerusalem, when the joy of return and problems of getting the Temple and the city back on track were often in sharp contrast. After years of neglect and abandonment, the cultic life of the people is being restored, and with it the basis of a just and righteous community life. But there are problems with the sincerity and right intentionality of the cult, and that is reflected also in injustice and disruption in community relationships. This contrast is expressed in the opening verses of the oracle: on the one hand the people profess to “delight to know God’s ways” and to “ask of God righteous judgments”; yet on the other hand they complain to God “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” 

The prophet answers, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” The people go through the motions of fasting, they “bow down the head like a bulrush,” they “lie in sackcloth and ashes.” But the form of their action does not lead to proper fruit of the action, their accomplished occasions do not satisfy the aims initially given by God. Instead of quarreling and oppression over resources made to feel scarcer by abstinence, the fruit of their fasting ought to be sharing of resources and solidarity of community bonds: the fast that God chooses is “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” and in general to “loose the bonds of injustice” and “to let the oppressed go free.” The genuine posture of humility before God is not simply to bow down, but to be obedient to God’s aims, to be co-creators with God of the right-relationships of shared well-being God wants for all. 

When the people engage this sort of fast, then the action of God will be manifest among them. When the people “offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” then “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly,” then “The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,” then in the work of restoration and repair of the city and the Temple “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Importantly, these things are promised by the prophet not as a sort of quid pro quo, not as if God will reward the people for the results of their good works. What is promised here is that the practice of the proper fast will make them agents of God’s work, so that their action and God’s action will act together to bring about justice and peace. The people fasting and God hearing are not sequential moments, but are two aspects of a single reality, a single movement of God-among-the-people to make a community of right-relationship. 

In the Christian tradition we usually reserve talk about fasting for the season of Lent, and Lent will not begin for a few more weeks yet. Nevertheless, the question Isaiah raises about the right intention of practices of devotion and the fruit of that devotion in relationships of justice is pertinent to us in any season and for any devotional practice. When our communities, indeed our entire nation, is descending into greater inequality and rigid partisanship and feuding identities, how can our worship practices inform relationships of receiving and offering that function as the fast that God chooses? How do our prayers and songs and Eucharists teach us to “remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” so that we can be more active co-creators with God of communities of justice and peace? 

Psalm 112:1-10 continues in the same vein as the final section of the Isaiah oracle, providing a virtual catalogue of the good things that will come to “those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments.” Some of these things look like the people’s own works: “they are gracious, merciful, and righteous”; they “deal generously and lend”; they “have distributed freely, they have given to the poor.” Some of these things look like God’s works for them, beyond their own ability: “their descendants will be mighty in the land”; they “rise in the darkness as a light”; “they will be remembered forever”; “their horn is exalted in honor.” In truth, all these qualities of “happiness” arise from the co-creating of God and the people together. What the righteous accomplish, they accomplish by the aims and in the strength of God; what God gives is given through the openness and willingness and intention of the righteous to receive. Delight in God’s commandments is no mere notional assent to propositions; nor yet is it a fearful or burdensome effort to “be good” out of a sense of obligation to rules and regulations; but it is a sustained practice of giving and receiving with God and others, an ongoing sharing of aim and satisfaction in freedom and gratitude, so as to build up right-relationships of shared well-being. The “wicked” do not see this; for them the purpose of life is to grab and hold and bargain and manipulate to their own advantage; to them the practices of receiving and offering seem weak and insufficient to guarantee their self-satisfaction. But such self-dealing is always self-consuming in the end. It can never attain enough to satisfy its hunger for more attainment. That is why “the desire of the wicked comes to nothing” eventually, as we can see with so many of the super-rich today. It is finally only the shared well-being of co-creation with God and neighbors that can be “happy.” 

What is seen or not seen as wise and happy is also a theme in 1 Corinthians 2:1-16. This entire passage must be read against the backdrop of the factionalism and elitism in the Corinthian community discussed in chapter 1 and returned to in chapter 3; though chapter 2 may be read on its own as a description of Paul’s “wisdom,” to take it at that face value would be to miss the irony that constitutes Paul’s real message. 

We don’t know exactly who were the elitists in Corinth. At one time it was popular to label them “Gnostics” and to find their claim to superiority in possessing esoteric knowledge unknown to “ordinary” Christians. More recently they have been seen as a social elite, the wealthy and powerful, whose educated eloquence and familiarity with literature and philosophy were supposed to give them superior facility with spiritual matters. Whatever the basis of their claim, Paul’s purpose is to demonstrate that the elitists, and the factions that form around them, are contrary to God’s purposes of right-relationship for shared well-being. 

In his first move, Paul deliberately eschews the rhetorical eloquence highly prized by the Corinthian elitists: “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom … I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom.” Instead of intriguing esoterica, Paul “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” so that his witness to Jesus would not rest on words but on “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” At the beginning he draws a line between wisdom that is merely human and the kind of knowing that comes from encountering the genuine power of God. 

But then Paul seems to switch gears, claiming that “among the mature we do speak wisdom.” Paul here adopts what we can assume to be the style and vocabulary of the “wisdom elite,” using it in an ironic way to undercut their claims to wisdom. The wisdom Paul has to share is not “a wisdom … of the rulers of this age,” not one belonging to any social upper crust or elite, but is a wisdom hidden from rulers “doomed to perish” and unable to understand God’s purposes. The content of this wisdom is “what God has prepared for those who love him”; the key to this wisdom is love, agape, receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude; this is foreign to the mindset of those who maintain their elite privilege by taking and hoarding and manipulating and factionalizing, and therefore this wisdom must by definition remain impenetrable to elitists of any kind. 

What God will give to those who love is revealed to Paul and his followers “through the Spirit.” Unlike the elitists and their factions, the Spirit is a unifier; as Paul will later say, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit … to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4,7). While it is true that there are different spiritual gifts at work in the community, and some are more visibly out-of-the-ordinary than others, this does not mean, as the elitists appear to have claimed, that some gifts set apart their recipients as “more spiritual” or better than others. Gifts bestowed by God can only be “understood” through the Spirit of God, since the Spirit is the “within” of God (just as the human spirit is the “within” of a human person); therefore divine gifts can only be understood in terms of their ability to unify and manifest God’s aims for cooperative co-creation in the community. To take the gifts in any other way — as, for instance, indicating who is “better” than others — is to be unspiritual. And “those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit.” 

Paul thereby undercuts — using their own language! — the spiritual claims of the “wisdom elite.” Because they look for “gifts” that divide and set some above others, they demonstrate that they have not in fact received the gifts of the Spirit. They demonstrate that their “wisdom” is “foolishness” and they are “unable to understand” God’s gifts because such gifts are “spiritually discerned.” Paul and his followers, by contrast, in refusing to settle for “plausible words of wisdom,” receive the Spirit to “discern all things” and to think along with “the mind of Christ.” 

We must read Paul’s words about discerning God’s gifts against the backdrop of the elitism and factionalism of the Corinthian community, so that we may recognize the irony that opens up into a deeper truth. We must also read these words against the backdrop of elitism and inequality, factionalism and partisanship, racial injustice and white supremacy that characterize our society and our communities. If we proclaim Jesus in a way that sets some apart from others, that elevates our own status at the expense of the full humanity of anyone else, that confirms our supposed superiority in our own eyes, then how are we being anything but “unspiritual” and unable “to receive the gifts of God’s Spirit”? Conversely, how can we allow the unifying Spirit to give us “the mind of Christ” that is able to receive God’s ideals for right-relationships, and to offer back to God our co-creative work for shared well-being across all dividing lines? 

Finally, in Matthew 5:13-20, we hear Jesus’ teaching on the extent of righteousness. Sandwiched between the Beatitudes and a series of reinterpretations of key commandments, this section of the Sermon on the Mount probably originated as separate sayings of Jesus, which were collected and edited into this spot according to Matthew’s sermonic program. Salt, light, the law and the prophets, breaking or teaching commandments — all seem like standalone topics, grouped here only loosely by a hint of a common theme. That theme seems to be the “righteousness” that will “enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

In the wake of the 1 Corinthians rejection of elitism, it may seem strange to hear Matthew’s Jesus telling his followers “your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.” But the excellence required here is less one of degree than of intent. For the scribes and the Pharisees (at least as they function in Matthew’s narrative), “righteousness” is measured by punctiliousness in keeping the commandments — and not just the written commandments, but also the extensive oral tradition of interpretations and applications of the commandments. Knowledge of the law, exemplified for instance in being able to debate which commandment is most important, as Jesus will be challenged to do later on (Matthew 22:36), is a marker of such “righteousness,” and an important way to score points and demonstrate one’s excellence. Ritual gestures in public places, like washing hands before a meal (Matthew 15:2), are indicators of ceremonial seriousness, and marks of distinction for those who would be seen among the spiritual elite. For the scribes and Pharisees, to exceed in “righteousness” is score all these points. 

But for Jesus, what is “right” in “righteousness” is relationship. For Jesus, what is important in keeping the commandments is to “teach others to do the same,” that is, to build relationships with others that exemplify God’s ideals of justice and peace and love as revealed in the commandments. “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law” because it is the whole ethos of the law, the spirit of a community shaped by God’s steadfast love and God’s all-embracing compassion, and not simply the punctilious observance of assorted gestures and tasks, that points to the “righteousness” of right-relationships. This kind of “righteousness” is like salt that brings out the best of the flavors around it, that brings out the best in the people it encounters. This kind of “righteousness” is like light that is not hidden, not buried under punctiliousness, but shines to reveal the good works that people can co-create with God. This kind of “righteousness” extends the kindom of God by receiving God’s aims and offering active embodiments to work for the well-being of all. 

So for Jesus and his followers, to “exceed” the “righteousness” of the scribes and the Pharisees in not some sort of contest, not an attempt to out-elite the elites. It is instead a redirection of the very notion of “righteousness” to a new possibility of embodying God’s aims for right-relationship. To be righteous in this sense is to keep the kind of fast preached by Isaiah, and to receive the spiritual gifts of God’s love described by Paul. What opportunities to practice this sort of righteousness can we discern in our communities, and states, and nations today?

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest retired from full-time parish ministry. His theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Upper Midwest.