The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A), 16 February 2020

February 16, 2020 | by Paul S. Nancarrow

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

The readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany reflect on what it means to choose to follow the way of God’s ideals. 

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 sees this as a very straightforward, even stark, choice: choose YHWH and live, choose other gods and die. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”; those who “obey the commandments of the LORD your God” will “live and become numerous”; those who are “led astray to bow down to other gods” will “perish” and “not live long in the land.” Simple. 

But I think it would be a mistake to take this choice in such simple, stark terms in our interpretive moment. Our world today is riven by polarizations and partisanships, by groups and causes and identities that stake out all-or-nothing positions, by sects that take an almost puritanical zeal in insisting “you either agree with us on everything, or you are against us.” Too many of the world’s powerful want to protect their privilege by shutting out voices other than their own; too many of those who seek change refuse to compromise their particular ideals by consorting with others who seek change differently. To take Deuteronomy 30:15-20 as somehow validating this all-or-nothing-ism would be a misapplication of the text and a disservice to the message of right-relationships for genuinely shared well-being that is the heart of the gospel. 

It is useful to note that this passage speaks of the choice for or against God, and subsequent blessing or perishing, not in terms of legal benefits and penalties, but in terms of cause and effect. The verses do not portray God as saying, in effect, “obey my laws and I will reward you, disobey and I will punish you.” Instead the text reads as though God were simply pointing out how things work: if you love God and walk in God’s ways, working together to enact God’s aims for justice and peace, then richness of experience and deeper fulfillment of life will result; if you orient yourself to other aims, to self-centeredness or power-grabbing or entrenched greed, then that will diminish life for yourself and others, and will, sooner or later, spiral downwards into a way of death. It is not as if God is taking here the role of an enforcer to punish all out-groups. It is simply that one kind of living leads to greater life and one does not. 

I sometimes compare the commandments of God to the law of gravity. If you “disobey” the law of gravity by, let us say, walking off the roof of your house, your subsequent fall to the ground and breaking of a leg is not gravity “punishing” you or “taking vengeance” on you for breaking its rules. It is simply the fully expectable effect of a cause. It’s the way gravity works. Likewise, refusing to practice justice and peace creates a condition where life will diminish — although there may well be short-term apparent gains, in the longer view injustice and strife turn out to be unsustainable ways to live — and that is not because God vengefully punishes those who are outside God’s chosen law-abiding group, but simply because that’s the way the adventure of the universe works. 

So I think it would be a mistake to read this passage as setting up some kind of rigid demarcation by which those who obey God are “in” and those who don’t are “out.” I think it would be a worse mistake to interpret this passage as justifying any such sort of demarcation that we might want to make to serve our own in-group and out-group definitions. Better to see it as an invitation to all to “choose life,” to choose those actions and values and mutual adjustments that will open new possibilities and meet greater needs and lead to richer and more life-giving experiences for everyone, and especially for those whose experiences have been constrained and impoverished. A sermon for this day might ask the faith community to consider where it could choose life in its neighborhood and people and practices. 

The alternative reading, Sirach 15:15-20, echoes the same theme, albeit without the historical particularity of Deuteronomy’s framing story of the Israelites about to enter the land of promise. The wisdom author asserts that God “has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose” and affirms that every person has the ability to choose to keep God’s commandments, and that “and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” There is no hint here of the gap between choice and act that Paul will describe so penetratingly in Romans 7, nor of the controversy that would later develop between Pelagius and Augustine over our actual ability to keep the commandments even when we’ve chosen. These finer points of what we might call our psychospirituality disorder are not Sirach’s primary interest here, although they would have their place in a larger conversation on choice and act. What matters here is the warning that God “has not commanded anyone to be wicked” and the countervailing invitation to choose the life that is given from “the wisdom of the Lord.” 

While it does not speak of choice in quite the vivid terms of Deuteronomy or Sirach, the selection of Psalm 119:1-8 continues in the vein of the promise of happiness and blessing for those “who walk in the law of the Lord,” “observe God’s decrees,” and “seek God with all their hearts.” Unlike Sirach, the Psalmist recognizes that keeping the commandments is not simply a matter of one’s own will, but requires also the gift and guidance of God: “Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statutes!” The way of happiness and gratitude and blamelessness is a cooperative effort between God who gives ideal aims, humans who strive to enact those aims and offer their enactments to God, and God who gives new aims building on the enactments that have come before, in an ongoing dialogue of growing justice and peace. 

The text in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 picks up immediately where last week’s reading left off. This passage continues Paul’s ironic use of the language of spiritual elitism to undercut the position of the Corinthian elite; but then Paul shifts tone abruptly to straightforward, unironic teaching on leaders and factions. 

Having established in the verses immediately prior to this that the gifts of God’s Spirit are gifts of love, receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude, and those who do not love do not discern the Spirit, Paul here addresses those who consider themselves to be spiritually advanced, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” The tables are turned: the eloquence and prestige the elitists thought had demonstrated their spirituality have in fact led to “jealousy and quarreling among you,” showing that they are “of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations.” Their claims to have more-than-human status because they follow superior teachers instead shows them to be “merely human.” 

It is important here to remember Paul’s special use of the word “flesh.” In this usage, “flesh” does not mean “body” or “matter”; Paul is not invoking some supposed superiority of “pure spirit” over “material body.” That would be as bad a mistake as the claimed superiority of the elitists, and deeply inconsistent with Paul’s insistence on the physical incarnation and “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) humanity of Jesus. No, in this connection Paul uses the word “flesh” to indicate that part of the human person that tends to resist God. It is related to the bodily appetites; but it is also a turn of the psyche towards shorter-term and lesser satisfactions, rather than the satisfaction of the aims of God. The Greek word is sarx, which is related to the English sarcoma; I sometimes think of Paul’s special use of “flesh” as indicating a kind of cancer on the spirit, a mutation of desire that leads to worse and worse attempts at self-satisfaction rather than giving and receiving in superjective relationship with God. The Corinthian elitists are not “unspiritual” and “merely human” because they have bodies, but because they desire personal privilege and position more than they desire to love one another as God in Jesus loves them. 

Instead, the community in Corinth should look beyond factions devoted to teachers, to see instead that they all together are a work-in-progress with God. Paul and Apollos each did important work in the community, and each attracted believers who had particular affinities for the styles and contents of their teaching. All human communities — including all faith communities — have natural affinities and sympathies of this sort. But deeper than natural affinity is the recognition that Paul and Apollos and any other teacher and leader works “as the Lord assigned to each.” What matters in the teaching and leadership and devotion and work of any member of the community is that “God gives the growth.” Here Paul drops all irony and self-subverting use of spiritualist language and tells the Corinthians forthrightly that they are drawn together by God in “common purpose,” to be “God’s field, God’s building” for bringing about right-relationships of shared well-being without faction or division. 

Just as the Deuteronomy reading calls us to question whether polarizations and partisanships can have any place in “choosing God,” so the 1 Corinthians passage today makes us question how our natural affinity groupings might devolve into factions, and to recognize that this does not serve the mission of God’s love. 

Matthew 5:21-37 also picks up immediately where last week’s reading left off, continuing with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This section of the Sermon is more programmatic than the last, consisting of a series of familiar Torah commandments which Jesus reinterprets for life in his community. To borrow the key phrase from Deuteronomy, Jesus shows how each of these commandments provides opportunity not simply to fulfill legal obligation, but to “choose life.” Some of these commandments seem more directly relevant to our lives, some more limited to Jesus’ first-century context; all of them show that the Way of Jesus means making choices to practice receiving and offering in love. 

Jesus begins with the commandment “You shall not murder.” He reinterprets and internalizes it to mean not to be angry with or to insult “a brother or sister.” It is not only the violent deed which violates the commandment, but a violent ill-will or word also. Intending harm against another, even if that harm is not acted out, is still a break in right-relationship, still a refusal to receive the other as they are and offer to the other the best you can. This is a failure to enact God’s ideals. Importantly, Jesus does not leave us hanging with only the “you shall not”; he also gives the remedy. “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,” Jesus teaches: take action to restore right-relationship, make a concrete gesture toward the well-being of sister or brother, rather than their harm; and then offer that also to God, make the righting of relationship a satisfaction of divine aim that can be taken up into God’s Consequent Nature and used to shape new aims for greater goods. Reconciliation is much more than just not-murdering, it is positive action to reflect and embody God’s love. 

Incidentally, it is because of this verse that the Passing of the Peace is placed in many Christian eucharistic liturgies at its particular position. In Episcopal and Anglican liturgies, and in many Protestant liturgies shaped by the Liturgical Movement, the Peace comes just before the Offertory, so that people can reach out to each other in Jesus’ name to make right-relationship literally just before the gifts are brought to the altar. In the Roman Rite the Peace is held until just before Communion, when the people will bring themselves to the altar to receive the sacrament and offer themselves to be living sacrifices to God. A preacher addressing a congregation whose liturgy includes a Passing of the Peace might draw attention to that connection. 

Likewise the next commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” is interpreted and internalized to bar not only the act of bad faith but also the bad desire to act in bad faith. Regarding anyone with lust is to reduce that person to being merely a means to one’s own gratification; it violates right-relationship not simply in the breaking of fidelity, but, worse, in the refusal to receive and accept a person as a person apart from what pleasure one might imagine getting out of them. Looking with lust also reduces the looker: it violates right-relationship in that the one who looks in this way is refusing to offer their best self for new possibilities of actual relationship. I think this is the origin of Jesus’ warning language about tearing out eyes and cutting off hands. This is not only a hyperbolic way of warning people to remove temptations to lustful looking or reaching, but the paradoxical recognition that wholeness comes not from satisfying every urge of every bodily member, but from the integrity of practicing receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude. This is also the meaning of Jesus’ reinterpretation of traditional teaching on divorce: vows to maintain relationship with integrity and fidelity are not broken so easily as writing out a certificate, and to dismiss a vowed relationship so cheaply is to turn away from God’s ideals of receiving and offering. The politics and power dynamics of marriage and divorce in Matthew’s society — and in our own — are too complex to cover adequately in this kind of commentary, and we would be unwise to take this teaching as any sort of blanket pronouncement on whether or not divorce and remarriage can be accepted by Christians under any social norms. By linking the “adultery” of post-divorce marriage with the “adultery of the heart” in this passage, Matthew is making the point that relationships of receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude are too important to reduce to leering, projecting, manipulating, or dismissing without doing damage to all parties. The Way of Jesus is not only to fulfill the letter of the law “You shall not,” but also to attend to rightness in all relationships. 

Swearing and keeping vows, calling on heaven or earth or Jerusalem to witness what we’ve said and hold us to it, is not so common among us today as it was in the times of Jesus and Matthew. Apart from courtrooms or certain civil oath-takings, phrases like “so help me God” or “as God is my witness” are generally taken today as conversational conventions, and not real vows before God. Perhaps for us Jesus’ emendation of the commandment “You shall not swear falsely” to “Do not swear at all” might seem less weighty than the other commandments in this series. But the heart of Jesus’ reinterpretation — “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” — is of a piece with all the others. What matters in making promises is not the external form of witness one might call upon, but the internal disposition and intention to do as promised. The one who follows the Way of Jesus will always strive to practice receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude so as to build up right-relationships of shared well-being, loving others as Jesus loves. Their word cannot be guaranteed by heaven or earth or Jerusalem or their own head any better than it is guaranteed by their consistent practice of doing what they’ve said. That personal integrity is more important in the Way of Jesus than following rules about the proper form for taking oaths. 

For each of these commandments, therefore, the real fulfillment lies not merely in not doing the thing the commandment forbids, but in actively doing the thing God’s love empowers. Reconciliation, commitment in relationship, integrity in speech are works of love that enact God’s ideals of right-relationship. They are works of love that can be practiced in personal life, and can be extended to communities and commitments to justice and peace in public life. To practice these things is not only to fulfill the form of a commandment, but is to choose life in God.

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.