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Introduction To The Scripture For The Four Sunday After Epiphany - Year A
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; I Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany - Year A

     
MICAH 6:1-8              In spite of all that God had done for Israel in
the past and all their sacred rituals, the prophet is declaring, they had
really missed the essence of what it means to be religious.  Totally
rejecting their sacrifices as worthless, he declares the simple truth: God
requires only justice, kindness and humility.  At a time when money seems
to be so important - in taxes, welfare, debts and investment - we do well
to remember this.  


PSALM 15                 This psalm teaches the supreme values intended to
guide the moral and spiritual life of the truly religious Jew.  In many
respects it summarizes the highest teachings of the great prophets as well
as the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy..


I CORINTHIANS 1:18-31    The tension between living in the real world and
living by Christian values was as serious an issue for the Corinthians as
it is for us today.  Here Paul made his forthright views on this struggle
as clear as can be.  The  power to live the Christian life lies in the
self-sacrificing attitude of Jesus who gave himself in love on the cross. 
All who would be disciples of Jesus are called to a similar standard.  As
foolish and ineffective as it may seem to unbelievers, this is God's only
plan for saving the world.  
  

MATTHEW 5:1-12           The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of sayings
of Jesus gathered at different times and places, rather than delivered all
at once in a single discourse.  There is much scholarly debate as to how
much of it Jesus actually spoke himself and what was added later by the
early church as the apostles reflected on and taught those first believers
about him.  These Beatitudes - a name derived from the Latin for "blessed"
- summarize the revolutionary values intended to guide those seeking to
follow Jesus.  Whether Jesus himself or the apostles uttered them, they are
still as challenging as ever.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:


MICAH 6:1-8   We know relatively little about Micah except what little can
be garnered from the text, particularly 1:1,8-16.  At the same time as his
better known contemporary Isaiah proclaimed his oracles from Jerusalem and
the royal court, Micah spoke from the countryside in the foothills of
Judah.  He knew from personal experience the suffering that the policies of
the governing religious and political authorities caused among ordinary
people.

The times were perilous and the monarchy unstable (750-700 BCE). 
Traditional religious practices had declined and idolatry had become
common.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel was under attack and soon to be
overwhelmed by the aggressive Assyrian empire.  Judah, on the other hand,
was able to withstand the onslaught for a time only by compromising their
political and religious values, believing that Yahweh would protect them if
they offered sufficient sacrifices or Adopted foreign gods to compensate
for their moral depravity and gross social injustices.  

This passage is the most memorable of Micah's oracles.  It presents Yahweh
as a prosecutor challenging Yahweh's people to defend themselves against
the charge of infidelity despite their historic relationship based on
Yahweh's repeated acts of redemption (vss.4-5).  This relationship is
intended to be both ethical and religious, but a variety of inappropriate
liturgical aberrations have destroyed it (vss.6-7).  In spite of all that
God  had done for Israel in the past and all their sacred rituals, they had
really missed the essence of what it meant to be faithful.  

This condemnation of ritual sacrifices marks one of the high points not
just in the OT but in the whole of scripture.  Not only did Micah deem the
traditional products of agriculture unsuitable, he denounced the profligate
quantities of these expended uselessly in beseeching divine favour (vs.7a). 
But the sacrifice which he decried most severely was the offering of
firstborn children.  The belief popular at the time among many primitive
cultures held that the most significant sacrifice one could offer to
appease Yahweh was one's eldest child.  

Israel also practiced this custom, common in the ancient Middle East as
attested by several OT references (see Joshua 6:26; Judges 11:30-40; 1
Kings 16:34).  The Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem stands on the
traditional site on Mount Moriah where Abraham believed that Yahweh
required such a sacrifice of him, but also prevented it by providing a ram
(Gen 22).  In Micah's time during the reign of Ahaz (735-715 BCE), such
sacrifices were made in the valley of Hinnom outside southeastern walls of
Jerusalem to propitiate Molech, the god of the Ammonites.  Totally
rejecting these sacrifices as worthless, Micah states the simple truth that
God requires only justice, kindness and humility.  

At a time when money seems to be the measure of all things, we would do
well to remember this ancient wisdom as we live in the global village of
the 21st century.  An overview of social history shows that corporate
capitalism motivated mainly by consumerism and greed is a relatively recent
development.  The devastating natural catastrophe caused by the recent
earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia may well have reawakened the more
characteristic practice of generosity based on compassion and communal
sharing of resources.  Faith and a providential attitude sees the hand of
Yahweh, the lord of history, even in such traumatic events, as Micah saw
the Assyrian invasion in his time.


PSALM 15   Where does a person go when seeking guidance in making a
decision or light on some persistent affliction? The ancient custom was to
repair to some place of worship and seek instruction from an oracle
communicated by a priest.  This psalm embodies such a practice within the
Jewish tradition.  It teaches the supreme values intended to guide the
moral and spiritual life of the truly religious Jew.  In many respects it
summarizes the highest teaching of the great prophets as well as the laws
found in the Books of Leviticus and  Deuteronomy.  Here is Torah, literally 
'teaching' in the best sense of that word.  The psalm probably dates from
the post-exilic period when Torah had achieved its final stages of
development.  
     
Instruction often proceeded by a traditional question and answer method
such as found here.  This parallels the prophetic method we have seen above
in Micah 6:6-8.  The psalm also exhibits liturgical characteristics.  But
it may have been used more at home in preparing for worship than in the
temple itself.  It sets forth clearly how the believer is to present
himself so as to appear righteous before God and receive God's blessing. 
As in the decalogue on which it may depend, there are ten qualifications
(vss.2-5).  Most of the sins enumerated emphasize primarily antisocial acts
rather than religious transgressions.  
     
The whole consists of three parts similar to a catechism: question, answer
and reward.  It places significant value on moral integrity and truth.  The
psalmist must have lived in times when such virtues were lacking.  Yet he
wrote a tract equally applicable to our times.  
          

1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-31   The tension between living in the real world and
living by Christian values was as serious for the Corinthians as for us
today.  Here Paul made his forthright views on this struggle as clear as
can be, but he had no illusions about how these would be perceived by those
outside the Christian fellowship: they would see the faith as utter
foolishness (vs.18).  

In the exegesis of this passage, Clarence T. Craig  speculated that it may
have been the Apollos faction in Corinth, imbued with Jewish wisdom
tradition, which laid too much stress upon moral precepts. (*The
Interpreter's Bible* vol.10, 28. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953)
Undoubtedly Paul knew Israel's wisdom tradition very well.  He would have
none of it.  His first appeal is to scripture (vs.19) where he melds two
quotations from Isaiah (29:14 and 33:18) although it is difficult to
understand the relevance of these two quotations.  For him, there was one
source of spiritual power to live the Christian life in present
circumstances, then as now: the cross of Jesus Christ.
     
The power lies not in the pieces of wood as mediaeval relics implied nor in
the religious symbol worn as a decoration, but in the self-sacrificing
attitude of Jesus who gave himself in love on the cross.  All who would be
disciples of Jesus are called to a similar standard.  As foolish and
ineffective as it may seem to unbelievers, this is God's only plan for
saving the world. 

We must emphasize that Paul did not belittle learning or reject knowledge. 
He himself was a well educated man for his time.  He was equally certain
that this was not the course that led to God's presence and power.  He also
believed fervently that his fellow Jews were on the wrong track because
they rejected the crucified Christ.  No Jew could ever believe that the
Messiah would be executed in such a merciless manner.  Instead they sought
credible signs that the Messiah had come to bring them freedom from all
oppressors.  In fact, as William Barclay stated, two such supposed messiahs
had appeared within the decade when Paul wrote.  Thousands of credulous
Jews had followed them. ("Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Corinthians"
Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1954.)
     
Greeks, on the other hand, also spurned the whole idea of the incarnation
of God.  They sought wisdom in philosophy.  Paul's attempt to convert
Athenians with a philosophical diatribe did not achieve great success (Acts
17:16-34).  Paul did not seem disturbed by the lack of response from those
whom the world thought wise or thought themselves to be so.  The gospel he
preached was for simple folk like those in the Corinthian congregation
(vs.26).  God chose the little people, not the great ones, to be witnesses
to the initiative of grace offered in Christ Jesus.
     
As a young man an eminent scholar served a pastorate in a Scottish coal
mining community where the men of the congregation worked in considerable
danger at the coal face.  One evening after discussing point of faith with
one of the elders of the congregation, the minister remarked, "Jock, that's
narrow, but deep."  To which the elder replied, "At the coal face, one has
to be both narrow and deep."  Paul's admonition to the Corinthians conveyed
a similar simplicity.


MATTHEW 5:1-12   The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a collection of
sayings Jesus may have uttered at different times and places, rather than
delivered all at once in a single discourse.  There is still much scholarly
debate as to how much of it Jesus actually spoke himself and what may have
been added later by the early church.
     
The Beatitudes summarize the revolutionary values intended to guide those
seeking to follow Jesus.  Each one is a sermon in itself, and the whole
passage has generated many a sermon series from pulpits of yesteryear. 
Those who would have a little variation from the lectionary would do well
to select this passage for such a continuum.
     
Beatitudes appear in the OT according to a single pattern beginning with
the Hebrew  word 'esher' (blessed or happy) after which they usually
described someone worthy of praise (e.g. Psalm 1:1; 2:12; Proverbs 8:34;
Isaiah 56:2; Daniel 12:12).  Matthew quoted Jesus using the same method and 
adding the reason for this happy state.  
     
Apart from Matthew and Luke where the formula appears most commonly,
beatitudes occur seven times in Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6;
22:7, 14), three times in Paul's Letter to the Romans (4:7-8; 14:22), and
once in John (20:29).  The main difference from OT beatitudes, however, is
their stress on eschatological joy of sharing in the reign of God as
opposed to receiving rewards for living righteously here and now.  The
reign of God comes, the beatitudes insist, not by implementing human
schemes of moral and social improvement, but by the gift of God.  
     
Another feature to be noted is the paradoxical quality of the Matthean
beatitudes.  They contradict the normal expectations of ordinary people and
their reactions to human experience.  The people Matthew identifies are not
supposed to be happy - the poor, the mourners, the persecuted.  Was Matthew
writing for those of his own community as well as recording the tradition
of what Jesus may have said? Was he promising release from the stresses of
living in difficult times through trust in God's action on their behalf
regardless of their present circumstances?  Many martyred witnesses to the
faith went to their death believing that a vastly better life awaited them
in the heavenly realm.

Yet the message of the Matthean beatitudes is not exclusively for a distant
future.  Rather, it is for the present.  The words were spoken to generate
trust in God in difficult circumstances, not simply to enable us to endure
hard times.  None of us can avoid the traumatic experiences that life so
frequently presents.  The challenge of Christian faith is to accept and
live a sustaining relationship with God in the most trying circumstances. 
This was never more true than at this moment when in Africa and Asia
millions of our fellow human beings suffer disease, privation and the
effects of war and natural disasters we have never experienced let alone
imagine.

The beatitudes define the way that Jesus himself lived to the point of
death as a rejected religious revolutionary and unjustly condemned
criminal.  Such spiritual power comes not through our most noble human
efforts, but through the gift of grace as the Spirit gives us.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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