The writings that we know as Isaiah probably span several generations and several writers. The 58th chapter is in what we loosely call “Third Isaiah”, which was probably written around 520 BCE, as the Hebrews began trying to rebuild and reshape their community after the exile. The passage that we read for this week is full of instructions for how to do just that.
The people seem to think that they are doing all the right things, living godly and pious lives that will please God. After all, they are doing it all right. Their worship services are standing room only. They say their prayers. They follow the ritual fasting days that will bring God’s favor upon them. So, it must have been quite a shock to hear this prophet’s strong condemnation of these rituals. They are called to take a hard and discerning look at why they are doing these things. Is it to gain favor with God? Is that the only reason that you practice your faith? Is that what you’re called to do? And then the prophet points to the seemingly endless stream of injustices that are part of their society—oppression, hunger, homelessness, poverty—the list is endless. The question is how can a society or a people call themselves righteous, call themselves people of God, who would allow these things to exist?
The writer contends that this is the only way to have a relationship with God. The writer reframes what the fast itself means. It is no longer the periodic fast days that are part of their religious life that “proves” that they are religious. Rather, the fast to which God calls the people of God is a fast from domination, oppression, evil speech, self-satisfaction and self-preservation, blaming others, entitlement, and privilege. God calls for justice to be lived and breathed by the people of God. One cannot have a full relationship with God without having a full and just relationship with the rest of humanity. You cannot disconnect piety from your everyday life. It is lived out day in and day out. God does not operate in isolation but calls the people into a partnership in building God’s vision. That is what it means to be a child of God. It is then that the light will break forth.
For us, we probably need to listen to the words, “Shout out, do not hold back!” Deep down we all want to do something, to live out our faith in the way that God calls us. But oftentimes, life gets in the way. First we need to___________ [fill in the blank]. You know after we get ____________ [fill in the blank] in order. That is the conventional wisdom of this world. We know all about worship and prayer except how to let it change us. But God calls us to get on with it, to begin living our life of faith in the fullest way possible without waiting until the time is right. It is our own chance for healing.
How would your congregation respond to this call to worship? “We hope you are not planning to go through the motions in worship, singing the songs but never engaging your hearts, hearing the Scripture but not listening for God, or giving an offering but not giving yourselves, because if so, you are not doing God any favors. You do not get points for attendance. If you really worship God today, then you will share with the poor, listen to the lonely, and stop avoiding those in need.” (Brett Younger, from Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 319)
- What does this passage mean for you?
- In what ways does this passage speak to our own time and our own context?
- In what ways do we separate our piety from our works of justice and mercy?
- What happens when those two become separated?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16)
Paul continues his letter to the church at Corinth and the theme of competing wisdoms between the society in which they lived and their identity as children of God. He is not trying to impress the Corinthians, who loved the Greek way of wisdom and knowledge, with flowery speech and rhetoric. Paul just said it the way it was. He preached Christ. (And we then learn later that Paul struggled with some people who were still dismissing him because he was “unimpressive.”)
Paul uses the word “mystery” not to describe a wisdom that he attains but to describe the cross. And unlike the Corinthians, who viewed the notion of “spirit” as miracle and power, Paul’s concept of Spirit of course depicts the Spirit of Christ that is alive and lives because of the cross. Paul is not preaching against being smart or intellectual. I would guess that Paul would be a zealous advocate for deep and reflective study. But for Paul, wisdom is something more. It is the wisdom that one finds in relationship with God, the wisdom of the cross.
He sees the cross as God’s way of outwitting the powers of this world, the powers that divide the world and pull it away from what is right and good. He is warning the Corinthian hearers that they are doing the same thing. They need to decide which power they will follow, which value system is part of their lives, or they have, in effect, “killed” Christ all over again. Those who love God, who follow Christ, who see the cross as God’s glory, will know the wisdom that is God.
Paul is actually being a little sarcastic here by employing the Corinthians own “everyday” language in his letter. He is usurping those words that the Corinthians hold so dear in their value system—mystery, wisdom, spirit—and bringing them into a new and certainly wise understanding. Paul is also challenging the powers of that world and of ours. Perhaps we have become entirely too comfortable with letting the powers of this world and the power and wisdom that is God “co-exist”. Maggie Ross, in her book, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity, writes that “if we emulate the world’s understanding of power, we cease to be the church. We merely mimic the power politics to which we have grown so accustomed. In discovering and rediscovering the “self-emptying, kenotic humility of God,” however, we not only find our voice as God’s people, but we are empowered to become the kind of community that brings healing and new life to the world.” (Richard M. Simpson, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 331.)
- a. What does this passage mean for you?
- b. We’ve asked this before but how does this depict “wisdom”?
- c. Do you think we are too comfortable with letting the powers of this world and the powers of God “co-exist”? What does that mean for us?
- d. We have talked about the “humility of God”. What does that mean in our world today?
GOSPEL: Matthew 5: 13-20
Last week we read the Beatitudes, the well-known discourse that depicts life in the context of God’s grace. You will notice that the final beatitude changes to second person. Verses 13 and 14 continue with this personalizing effect. The emphasis is on “you”….YOU…YOU…YOU. (You are the salt of the earth, as if Jesus is speaking specifically to each of us.) And so, in the middle of these concerns, Jesus provides the image of “salt”. Why salt? Think about some of the uses for salt—seasoning, nutrition (an essential nutrient that the body itself cannot produce), deicing, as a preservative, as a purifier (antiseptic for wounds), as a cleaning agent, or to add buoyancy in water (ships float higher in salt water than in fresh water.) Real Simple Magazine suggests that you put salt into pine cones and shake them in a plastic bag to get all of the dirt off before you use them to make a wreath.
So salt does not have just one use. The idea, then, of “becoming salt” calls us to a deep and multi-layered existence with God and with our brothers and sisters on this earth. The passage does not say “you should be” or “you ought to be” or “when you have time, you should try to be.” It says “you are the salt of the earth.” You are the essential nutrient that the world needs.
Salt was so valuable in the ancient world, that the Greeks called it divine. There were times when Roman soldiers would even receive their salaries in salt. In fact, the Latin word for “salt” is the root word for “salary”. For the ancients, the two most important things in life were sol and sal, Sun and salt. In this Scripture, the salt referred to the leveling agent for paddies made from animal manure, the fuel for outdoor ovens used in the time of Jesus. Young family members would form paddies with animal dung, mix in salt from a salt block into the paddies, and let the paddies dry in the sun. When the fuel paddies were light in an oven, the mixed-in salt would help the paddies burn longer, with a more even heat. When the family spent the salt block, they would throw it out onto the road to harden a muddy surface. (“trampled under foot”).
Jesus saw his followers as leveling agents in an impure world. Their example would keep the fire of faith alive even under stress. Their example would spread faith to those mired in the cultural “dung.” But if their example rang empty, they were worthless; they would be dug into the mud under the heels of critics. Even today in Africa, workers request a portion of their pay in salt. When one is presented to a chief, it is expected that you would bring a gift of salt. Nelson Mandela once said, “Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all.” So, to really understand this passage, we need to have an African view of salt. When we are told that we are salt, we are told that we are of great use and value in society. We must add flavor to everything we touch.
Why light? That one is probably more obvious to us. A light illumines, points to something, reveals, makes it easier to see. We are called to be light—to be the ones that reveal Christ to and in the world. We are called to be salt, to shape the world, and we are called to be light, to point toward Christ. That is the way that everything that came before, the laws, the prophets, the wisdom, is revealed in its fullness. The point is that we are always called to be something more. Christians make a difference in the world by being different from the world.
We have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps have understood it. But who has heard it aright? Jesus gives the answer at the end (Matt. 7:24– 29). He does not allow his hearers to go away and make of his sayings what they will, picking and choosing from them whatever they find helpful and testing them to see if they work. He does not give them free rein to misuse his word with their mercenary hands, but gives it to them on condition that it retains exclusive power over them.
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. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
- a. What does this passage mean for you?
- b. Why is this sometimes so difficult for us to really grasp and live out in our lives?
- c. What does it mean to you to “be salt”? To “be light”?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Without justice, what are kingdoms but great gangs of bandits? (St. Augustine of Hippo)
What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God. (Monica Baldwin)
There can be little growth in holiness without growth in a sense of social justice. (Edward Hays)
I want to pay the highest compliment anyone could ever pay:
You are the light of the world.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the leven in the loaf.
So, go and be light. Go and be salt. Go and be leven.
(From Marcus Borg, who admitted that he stole it from William Sloan Coffin]