Epiphany 4A: A Reversal of What We Know

Door to new worldOLD TESTAMENT:  Micah 6: 1-8

To read the Lectionary Old Testament passage, click here

The writings known as Micah were probably written during the reigns of three kings of Judah: Jotham (742-735 BCE) was a time of growing fear and unrest, Ahaz (735-715 BCE) came when Israel (the Northern Kingdom) was experiencing internal rebellions and rapid turnover of kings, and Hezekiah (715-687 BCE) was the time when Sennacherib marched on and destroyed most of Judah and Jerusalem barely survived.  Micah is associated with Moresheth, a small town about 25 miles from Jerusalem and probably did most of his writing during the reign of Ahaz, when there was great oppression from the upper class.

His message is assurance that this time of oppression would end and a new ruler would come and usher in a time of salvation.  The prophet is claiming a coming new Davidic king, one that would rule relying on the strength of God.  Keep in mind that in this time of exile, it appeared that the Davidic line would be ending.  The prophecy was a reminder that God would keep the promises that God had made, offering new hope to the people in despair.

This passage that we read ends with one of the most familiar and most quoted lines in the Bible.  It sounds so simple—just do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.  What more do we need to hear?  But back up.  We are told that God has a problem with the people and is going to deal with them.  The people have actually failed in their covenant to God.  And they know it.  They have looked at their lives through God’s eyes and the scene is not a pretty one.  The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.  Those with power are taking and using the resources of the less powerful and leaving them out in the cold, so to speak.  Wealth is becoming concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people while homelessness and poverty are growing at an escalating pace.  Clean water is in short supply.  There were those who do not have education or insurance.  (Oh, sorry, I accidentally jumped ahead about 2700 years!)  But the worshipping community just goes right on worshipping and living piously as though nothing was wrong, wondering when this whole Reign of God thing is going to come to fruition.

So, what, they ask, can they do to make it up to God, to make it up to the community and to God?  Nothing except what God has said—live justice, love kindness, walk humbly.  In other words, our faith is not to be measured in piety but in terms of justice and relationships with others and with God.  The object is to overcome separation from God and from each other.  Our religion should be a religion of mercy and justice.  That is the way that God is made flesh; that is the way that we experience the Reign of God.  The prophet Micah would say that right worship and right conduct are undividable; you cannot have one without the other.  Justice and piety are two sides of the same coin.

The truth is, we people of faith, according to Micah, are called to question those systemic injustices that continue in our world.  That’s hard.  After all, what can we really do about them?  Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.  And if you read Micah, you know that it’s not really just a suggestion.  It’s who we are and who we’re called to be.  It’s the Reign of God coming into our midst. 

  1. What  does this passage mean for you?
  2. What  does it mean to do justice? To love kindness? To walk humbly with God?
  3. What  evidence do you see of the Reign of God in our world?
  4. Why is it so difficult to embrace that vision?
  5. What happens when justice and piety become separated?

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 1: 18-31

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Once again, Paul is dealing with the people of Corinth.  Earlier in this chapter, he has been bemoaning the divisions in the Corinthian church community.  He starts here not really taking sides, but addressing the issue of wisdom and pointing out that wisdom in Christ is not the same as the wisdom of the world.  He is not attacking being “wise”, but is calling them to a more profound wisdom.

Think about it.  The ugly sight of a mangled human body hanging on a cross confronts normal worldly values.  But these are not worldly values. And this first century church, no less than we, have tried to “clean up” this image and fit it into something that makes sense within the normalcy of the world.  Paul is warning against the structures and intentions of the world that crucified Jesus and that are now trying to make it “presentable”.  Paul is reminding us that for those wise in the ways of God, the cross is salvation.

What the world sees as failure, Paul sees as the beginning of wisdom—real wisdom.  (And keep in mind here that first century Corinth was entrenched in its love for wisdom just like all Greek states.  Paul was hitting them where they lived.)  The cross, the wisdom of God, is downright subversive.  It’s hard to swallow.  In fact, it’s just downright foolishness—the foolishness of a God who would expect those of us living in a world where it’s hard to make a living, hard sometimes to get by, hard sometimes to get what we’re due, to simply do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

One of the dangers of being in church as often as I am is that it all starts to make sense. I speak of the Christian faith so casually and effortlessly that I begin to think, “Fine thing, this Christianity. Makes good sense.” And then I find myself believing all sorts of things in church that I wouldn’t let anyone put over on me in the real world. That which people would choke on in everyday speech, they will swallow if it’s in a sermon. That’s a blessing for those of us who get paid to preach Christ crucified.

And so Kierkegaard could say, “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd,” and again, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”

It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry. “Blessed are the meek. . . .”  “Thou shalt not kill.” “Love your enemies.” “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.” Be honest now. Blessed are the meek? Try being meek tomorrow at work and see how far you get. Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back. Blessed are those who are peacemakers; they shall get done to them what they are loath to do to others. Blessed are the merciful; they shall get it done to them a second time. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; they shall be called fanatics.

As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with Sunday-morning ears but with Monday-morning ears, it can sound foolish indeed — tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one’s point of view.

Is the world more like Sunday morning or Monday morning?

A nation that spends billions on sophisticated military hardware and computerized weapons only to be rendered impotent by a mob of poor, screaming Islamic students ought to appreciate the irony of how powerless the powerful can be. Our scientists make medical progress and invent the X-ray, only to find it to be a major cause of cancer. Our advanced technology moves us to the brink of a new Dark Age. It is shocking. how unwise people of wisdom can be…

Along with the world, we expected to see a savior coming to take charge on our terms. Then the parade comes, and we find that we are standing in the wrong place to get a good view. Here comes the carpenter’s son, bouncing on the back of a donkey — not coming for breakfast with [the president and his wife], or dinner with Congress, or [a guest seat with the first lady at The State of the Union Address]. The smart ones, the ones who are well adjusted to the status quo, the ones in the know, neither see nor know — so the story goes. Here is a messiah who does not make sense.

Only the very young, the very old, the women and the simpletons see him. They are standing in the right place to get a proper view. Along with the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, the prisoners and the poor old crazed men like Paul, these “fools” see things as they really are.

As for us smart ones, we know better. We know that if we work hard, achieve, get advanced degrees, adjust to the way things are, and act sensibly, we shall be in the know. It all depends on how you look at it.  (Excerpt from “Looking Like Fools”, by William Willimon, The Christian Century, March 10, 1982.)

What it boils down to is that this way of life to which we have become accustomed is possibly not the way of life to which we are called.  We need to look at our lives through the lens of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  What exactly does that mean?  And what do we have to change to do that?

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What, here, is wisdom?
  3. Do you think we try to “clean up” Christianity or God so that it will fit into our society?  In what ways?

 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 1-12

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Most scholars agree that the core of what is known as the Beatitudes goes back to Jesus.  It is essentially a reversal of the usual value system that was in place in the first century.  The Beatitude was present in the Jewish tradition as a form of proclamation found in wisdom and prophetic writings.  They declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act.  Here, the opposite of “blessed” is not unhappy but cursed.

One thing to note is that the form of these Beatitudes uses two verbs:  are and will.  Each beatitude begins in the present and moves to future tense.  They are, then expressions of what is already true in the Christian community not, necessarily, for individuals, but in community.  The move to the future tense indicates that the life of the kingdom must wait for ultimate validation until God finishes the new creation.  There is a resistance, then, against Christianity as a philosophy of life that would make one healthy, wealthy, and wise.  It is not a scheme to reduce stress, lose weight, advance one’s career, make one financially successful, or preserve one from illness.  It is, rather, a way of living based on the sure and firm hope that one walks in the way of God and that righteousness and peace will finally prevail.

The Matthean beatitudes are spoken from a mountain, probably since, as one writing to the Jewish community, this would depict that it was something important.  (Reminiscent of Moses on Mt.Sinai.)  The version told by the writer of Luke is spoken from a “level place” (sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain.  Matthew’s beatitudes are spoken to a “crowd”.  When Jesus speaks in the Lucan version, he speaks specifically to his disciples.  Matthew version have no corresponding “woes”.  In Luke, there are four “woes” corresponding to four “blessings”.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:  Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways.  Jesus knows only one possibility:  simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it.  That is the only way to hear his word.  He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.

The Beatitudes lay out a vision of a reversal of the world we know.  Jesus calls us to a radical kingdom that is totally different than the world in which we live.  Now don’t think that Jesus is merely laying out the conditions under which we would be blessed.  It is rather a promise of a radical reversal, an upside-down (or right-side-up) world.  It is a promise from a God that wants the best for us, a God that sees that we will indeed be blessed.  That is the promise—a blessed relationship with God.  So this is a picture of what that Kingdom looks like.  It is the way it should be and the way it will be.  The Beatitudes are meant to be descriptive rather than instructive.

Brendan Freeman, a Trappist monk, said that “the Beatitudes draw our hearts out of themselves into a new way of understanding our lives…they are deliberately incomplete.  They wait the inclusion of our lives.  Each person fills in the blank space with the details of his or her own life’s situation.” 

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is the most difficult Beatitude for you to grasp?
  3. What difference does it mean to look at them as descriptive rather than instructive?
  4. In what ways might we interpret The Beatitudes incorrectly?

  

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

More than a few Christian might be surprised to learn that the call to be involved in creating justice for the poor is just as essential and nonnegotiable within the spiritual life as is Jesus’ commandment to pray and keep our private lives in order. (Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing)

Do Justice

If there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.  (William Penn)

Love Kindness

Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.  (Thomas Merton)

 

Walk Humbly

 

Closing

Because we love the world, we pray now, O [God], for grace to quarrel with it, O Thou whose lover’s quarrel with the world is the history of the world . . . Lord, grant us grace to quarrel with the worship of success and power . . . to quarrel with all that profanes and trivializes [people] and separates them . . . number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth from this place longing only for those things for which Thou dost make us long, [those] for whom the complexity of the issues only served to renew their zeal to deal with them, [those] who alleviated pain by sharing it; and [those] who were always willing to risk something big for something good . . . O God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire.  Amen.   (William Sloane Coffin, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3160, accessed 26 January, 2011)

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