The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 17 February 2018

February 17, 2019 | by Robert Gnuse

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 17:5-10 Psalm 1 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 Luke 6:17-26

Jeremiah 17:5-10
This is an oracle by Jeremiah which praises those who trust in God and not mere mortals. Commentators have noted the great similarity between verses 7-8 and the first part of Psalm 1, and verse 6 is somewhat like the second half of Psalm 1. The usual assumption is that Psalm 1 may have been inspired by this oracle in Jeremiah. Both speak of how those who trust in God are like the healthy tree, and those who are not are like plants that do not survive.

This oracle is an utterance of hope by Jeremiah that faithful believers will be vindicated. Elsewhere in these surrounding chapters of Jeremiah 11-20 we read the confessions, or prayers, or laments of Jeremiah wherein he expresses his anger and frustration with God over his prophetic calling and the difficulties he faces in life. His laments remind us of language in the lament psalms wherein believers pour forth anger and frustration with God. The rest of this oracle in Jeremiah, which we read in verses 11-18 reminds us even more of the Psalms, for it takes much of its language from lament hymns and also thanksgiving hymns, which are to be sung after the sorrow and the pain has passed that gave rise to the lament hymns in the first place.

As we read Jer 17:1-10 we cannot help but sense that these are words of the prophet that are proclaimed in spite of the pain and anguish he is feeling, at least that is what the greater context of this oracle leads us to suspect. These are words that can be spoken by many Christians today who utter words of hope and praise despite the illness, pain, emotional grief, or problems they might be facing.

Psalm 1
This psalm is the natural parallel to the oracle just considered in Jeremiah. Because it is the first psalm in the psalter, commentators have often suggested that it may have been the last psalm to be created, and that it was crafted to be an introduction to the psalms. Furthermore, the language of this psalm has reminded commentators of the language of the book of Proverbs, so this psalm has been called a wisdom psalm, which would also imply a late date for it. There are 150 psalms, and they are organized into five books, like the five books of the Pentateuch. Individual psalms that float loosely and have not been included in the Psalter, appear to have been created after 150 BCE. So we hypothesize that perhaps the Psalter was closed around that time, and Psalm 1 might have been written as a prologue in 150 BCE. Psalms are very difficult to date, so these are all nice hypothetical suggestions.

Psalm 1 is a nice little hymn. I had to memorize it as a child. It gives utterance to the hope that people who trust in God will be blessed like a beautiful, luxuriant tree, and people who do not trust in God will be like the chaff that is driven by the wind. That is very much a statement of faith and hope. But sometimes life is not like that, and there are other psalms that give expression for the angry petitioner who can approach God and give voice to his or her painful feelings of rage and frustration.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20
This chapter is the great chapter on the resurrection of the body that was penned by Paul. In this portion of the chapter Paul dwells intently upon the notion that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then there is no general resurrection, and the Christian faith is in vain. This would be a key component in Christian belief during the second century CE when Christians had to argue with Gnostic Christians who sometimes denied the actual death of Jesus on the cross and/or the belief in a physical resurrected body. Perhaps, Paul was already encountering Christians who were thinking in these Gnostic terms in the middle of the first century CE. Luke and John present post resurrection appearances of Jesus which stress the physical nature of his post-resurrection body. Both indicate that the resurrected Jesus ate food and had the marks of the crucifixion experience on his body. Luke and John were crafted between 95 and 105 CE, and perhaps John was later than that. So by the end of the first century CE there were Christians questioning the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrected body. They believed in a specific spiritual Christianity that was characterized by special knowledge and the avoidance of evil things like meat, wine, and sex. Luke and John craft their narratives with an eye to responding to these Gnostic ideas. Perhaps, already by Paul’s day these ideas were emerging. (I think one reason the Gnostics lost the battle was that they didn’t reproduce.)

The importance of the belief in the physical resurrected body of Jesus is that in the Christian testimony this is God’s clear affirmation of the goodness of the world. God actually had a physical body, and this body died and physically rose from the dead. Christians found the affirmation of the resurrected body to be an important component of their proclamation that God created the world good, and God redeemed a good world from human sin. Furthermore, it is a proclamation that the physical world truly matters, so that helping the poor in this life is a meaningful form of Christian service and Christian love. God wishes us to affirm the physical world by serving people’s needs in the physical world.

The Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed both affirm the resurrection of the body for that reason. New Testament authors and later Christian writers in the first two centuries were reluctant to speak of an immortal soul for that reason. They stressed the resurrected body, which speaks of the goodness of creation, whereas the concept of the immortal soul can be understood to say that the spiritual realm is good and the physical realm is evil. The church father, Hippolytus, around 200 CE, was the first to seriously combine the two concepts, but he clearly maintained that the soul is sinful and the source of human evil, and that the soul can die. He thus distinguished Christian belief from classical Greek belief that affirmed the soul is good and the body evil, and that the soul is inherently immortal and the body must perish because it is transitory. Ultimately, Christian affirmation of the resurrected body is necessary for our continued affirmation of the goodness of God’s created order and the need for engaging in social ministry for the poor.

Paul says that if we do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19). What more needs to be said?

Luke 6:17-26
The passage begins with, “He came down with them and stood on a level place.” What follows are sayings paralleled in Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7. So the “Sermon on the Mount” becomes the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke. (Maybe it was a plateau.) Actually, Matthew probably wished to use the word “Mount” to compare Jesus to Moses who taught the Law from Mount Sinai.

In this section we find the Beatitudes according to Luke. He shortened the list found in Matthew by omitting the specific beatitudes “blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the meek,” “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “blessed are the merciful,” “blessed are the pure in heart,” and “blessed are the peacemakers.” Luke left out much of what Matthew had. Probably Jesus taught these sayings many times, and Luke simply recalled a different oral tradition. Maybe he just shortened the list.

Luke changed some sayings. Matthew’s “poor in spirit” became simply the “poor” in Luke, which meant those who are economically poor. Matthew spoke of the virtue of humility, probably a meaningful statement to Jewish Christians living in community. Luke wished to inspire Christians in his Greek audience to actually do things for poor people, a theme found elsewhere in Luke. Perhaps the actual word used by Jesus in Aramaic was “ebion” which means poor, humble, peasant, who seeks to keep God’s law. In that case, both Matthew and Luke have provided a correct translation.

Matthew said, “kingdom of heaven,” while Luke said, “kingdom of God.” Matthew showed good Jewish piety, which often liked to replace the word “God” with the circumlocution “heaven.”

Matthew said, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” while Luke said, “blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Again, Luke wished to stress the need for social mission which actually inspires Christians to go forth and feed hungry people. Matthew’s image is much more a psychological attitude.

Both have the long beatitudes on blessedness for persecuted Christians, because this was a concern for both Matthew’s Jewish Christians and Luke’s Greek Christians. Both alluded to the persecuted prophets of the past.

Luke added something not found in Matthew: the woes. Luke said, “woe to the rich,” “woe to you who are full now,” and “woe to you who are laughing now.” This again shows Luke’s concern with actual economic poverty and the need for Christians to do something about the needs of the poor.

Thus, the Beatitudes may have been recalled by Christians in different ways. The gospel writers may have shaped the sayings of Jesus for the needs of their respective audiences. In so doing, they captured the spirit of what Jesus intended when he tried to teach his disciples: he did not want them to be literalists, but rather to capture the meaning of what he was teaching. Indeed, Matthew and Luke captured the message of Jesus in a meaningful way for their respective audiences.

In my opinion, it is the gospel of Luke that we Americans need to hear in our wonderful first world country with our needs provided. Well, that is, except for the poor in our own country which we seem to try to ignore. When I read the Beatitudes of Luke, it is the “woes” that make me most uncomfortable. By the world’s standards I am “rich,” by the world’s standards I am “full” (I need to diet), and by the world’s standards I lead a very happy life. When I complain, I remind myself that I do not live in Somalia, Libya, Syria, eastern Ukraine, western Burma, Bosnia, or a host of other places. I like to read the Beatitudes, but maybe I need to remind myself of the woes, maybe we need to remind ourselves of the woes. When God entered into the process of world history, he chose a country as bad as any of those just listed above. We need to identify more with the poor of the world.

Robert Gnuse (Ph.D., M.A., 1978-80, Vanderbilt; M.Div., S.T.M., 1974-75, Concordia Seminary in Exile) teaches Old Testament at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he is the James C. Carter, S.J./Chase Bank Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. He also serves as part-time pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  in Marrero, LA (since 1989).