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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany - Year A
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; I Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada.

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


Isaiah 58:1-9a   Ancient tribal tradition which ultimately found expression
in the Decalogue verbalized a strong sense of social justice.  The call for
social justice sounds through this passage in sharp contrast to vain
rituals like fasting.  The great historical events of Israel's faith
history - the exodus, the wilderness sojourn, the covenant - also found
expression in liturgy.  Through those liturgies, the events became
realities of faith and experience.  Fasting was a liturgical response to a
moral and spiritual crisis (e.g. Judges 20:26ff; 1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings
21:12; Psalm 35:13).  

When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the temple was destroyed in 586
BCE, an extended re-examination of the national history occurred.  After
the return from exile and the reconstruction of the temple fasting became
an expression of contrition and penitence.  (Zechariah 7:1-7; 8:18-19) 
This passage from Isaiah 58 voices a prophetic corrective to rituals which
had become hypocritical.  It asks why God ignores the sacred ritual and
gives a prophetic response in the name of the God who prefers simple
justice to empty stomachs and emptier souls.  The oracle would appear to
come from that intermediary period between Second Isaiah and Zechariah, and
was probably composed by a disciple of the former.  
     
Specific instances of injustice receive the condemnation they deserve (vss. 
3-4).  The passage also gives clear descriptions of how to create a
different social environment where justice rules (vss. 6-7).  A promise of
communion with God is the reward to be derived from these actions (vss. 8-
9a).
     
In prophetic passages like this the church today still finds its mandate to
call on its own resources and on political leaders for a realistic concern
for the poor, the oppressed and the homeless.  Yet these poetic lines were
composed more than 2500 years ago by an unknown prophet who stands in the
tradition of Israel's great voices for justice - Amos, Micah and Isaiah. 
The world awaits a fellowship of faithful people willing to risk
implementing such a plan in this age.
 
    
Psalm 112:1-9   We read this psalm as one of a pair with its immediate
predecessor, Ps. 111.  The latter is for liturgical use in congregational
worship.  This one has many of the same characteristics, but lacks the
liturgical style and emphasis.  In the original Hebrew both share the
acrostic form using the letters of the alphabet to begin each verse.  Form,
vocabulary and content indicate that both belong in the limited group of
Wisdom Psalms dating from the late centuries BCE after the reconstruction
of the temple.

As in the Book of Deuteronomy, the psalm regards the worldly reward of the
righteous and imminent punishment of the ungodly as fundamental truths. 
The devout Jew who read or heard this psalm believed its message that
righteousness, generosity and justice went hand in hand as the best
resources for creating the good life.  Indeed, this is truly  "the
character sketch" of the good life from a teacher of Wisdom.  Much of
Jesus' teaching countered this simplistic attitude, but that is no reason
to devalue its limited viewpoint.  The cross of Christ points to the deeper
truth that "while virtue may be its own reward, godliness may bring
persecution." (The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 4, p. 597)
     
Life does not follow an acrostic pattern.  It cannot be as rigidly
organized as this psalm suggests.  Self-righteous legalism has stultifying
effects.  Such an approach lacks spirit, enthusiasm and verve.  True
spirituality is both profoundly ethical and freely inspirational, open to
both moral discipline and spiritual freedom to respond to new experiences
as they occur along life's way.  Thus love as exemplified by Jesus of
Nazareth is fully expressed by knowing the rules, behaving accordingly, but
free to meet new challenges, be they unexpected adversity or timely
opportunity with equanimity and wisdom.  Such an approach to life
transforms into continual experiences of spiritual growth and fulfillment. 
This is the discipleship of the cross.


1 Corinthians 2:1-12   We do not know exactly what lay behind this unusual
but rich passage.  It bears the undercurrent of a very stressful
relationship between Paul and those for whom he wrote.  For some reason he
felt it necessary to defend his work as an apostle during an earlier visit
to Corinth.  But he did so with sarcasm about his  lack of worldly wisdom,
his physical weakness and halting speech.  He even admits to being
genuinely afraid (vs. 3-4).

Scholars still debate the nature of the "lofty words or wisdom" which Paul
eschewed in favor of the simple kerygma of "Jesus Christ, and him
crucified." It could have been nothing more than an unusually high premium
placed on worldly knowledge.  Corinth was a very cosmopolitan city and very
promiscuous too.  It reputedly had a temple of Aphrodite which engaged a
thousand prostitutes.  It could also have been a nascent gnosticism which
flowered much later in the lst century.  Just the same an arrogant
superiority complex displayed by the Corinthians, or a faction of the
congregation there, did seem to rankle Paul.
     
The wisdom Paul brought had its origin in God's eternal but secret  plan of
salvation "decreed before the ages for our glory." He believed that had
contemporary rulers recognized this, Jesus would not have been crucified
(vs. 8).  One might well wonder at this.  Would Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin,
Herod and Pilate have been deterred from political murder when threatened
by a spiritually gifted Galilean preacher and miracle worker?  Or did they
really fear that he was who his followers and the Jerusalem rabble said he
was - the long-expected Messiah?  
     
The thought that divine wisdom had greater significance than that of humans
reminded Paul of a quotation from scripture.  But where is it to be found?
Isaiah 64:4 contains the closest parallel, but certainly an inexact one. 
Whatever its source, Paul used it effectively to convey his meaning: the
love of God alone brings us the grace of spiritual wisdom.  This grace
comes to us through the gift of God's own Spirit (vss.10-12).  He wanted 
the Corinthians to see that he had given them God's own wisdom communicated
by the Holy Spirit in words and content accessible to all.  God's wisdom
was Jesus Christ crucified.  By this he meant the self-giving attitude
which Jesus not only lovingly exemplified by his death, but given to us
with the power to follow him.

     
Matthew 5:13-20   Three brief excerpts from Jesus' teaching - probably
given at different times - have become memorable criteria for Christian
living: salt that savors, light that can be seen clearly, and the eternal
validity of God's commandments.  This is still the quality of life for
every Christian disciple.
          
Salt from the Dead Sea together with its many by-products remains one of
Israel's main exports.  In biblical times it had liturgical significance as
well as being a condiment giving food a more palatable taste.  The cereal
offering, the burnt offering and incense were all seasoned with salt (Lev.
2:13; Ezek. 43:24; Exod. 30:35).  Some merchant, from Jericho perhaps, had
a rich contract to provide the temple with a bountiful supply.  Any beach
along the seashore yielded all that could ever be used for every purpose.  

Salt also had medicinal purposes behind which may have been certain
residual magic.  For instance, newborn babies were rubbed with salt - OUCH!
- possibly to ward off demonic influences.

Diseases of the mouth and skin, and open flesh wounds may also have been
treated with salt.  A very profitable element of the modern tourist trade
uses Dead Sea salt as a main ingredient of lotions and ointments which do
both soothe and heal.  Is it surprising, then, that Jesus turned this
homely metaphor into a memorable image of what men and women of faith may
for the world?
          
In the low, nearly windowless houses where people sheltered from the
elements, stored their meager possessions and slept at night, even a small
lamp was essential.  The simplest peasant lamp was no more than a dish of
clay pinched together at one side to form a vent for a wick.  Although more
decorative lamps of clay or brass could display artistic design, their
purpose was the same: to give light.  How often Jesus had seen his mother
fill the little vessels with precious olive oil and set them on a shelf or
a stand so she could tend to her household duties as evening came on?
Recalling that humble task may well have been what brought this revealing
metaphor to his mind.  It has enlightened the role of the faithful in the
world across the centuries when darkness has threatened the light, but has
never put it out.

For the faithful Jew, Torah was - and is - more than law; it is a way of
life in the real world in communion with and obedience to God.  Like the
prophets before him, Jesus did not seek to destroy Torah.  He only sought
to enrich and fulfill it in every human life.  Matthew's Gospel presented
Jesus as the new Moses who would lead Israel out of the rigidity and
bondage which had encumbered Torah for centuries.  Torah, God's unique gift
to Israel, was for the ordinary person, not the exclusive priest, learned 
scholar or haughty scribe of minute legalisms.  Righteousness was indeed
the fulfillment of the law, but exclusive self-righteousness was not only
unjust but contrary to the inclusive love for every person who sought to be
in fellowship with the One who sought to gift the whole world through
Israel.  It has been said that Jesus wished to be nothing more than a
faithful Jew.  It was God's will that the man from Nazareth become the
saviour of the world by living Torah in all its beauty and fullness.

                         
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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