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Thursday, February 03, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, I Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

The themes in this week’s readings are similar to those of last week—the priority of harmonious and just human relationships over right ritual or pious worship and the comparison of the foolishness and wisdom of the world with the foolishness and wisdom of the spirit.

We are challenged by a high standard indeed. Jesus, in the Gospel lesson, says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets . . . For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished . . . For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 17, 18, & 20)

Religion has been understood by many to be a set of laws to be obeyed—with rewards for obedience. The number of Jewish laws most commonly cited is 613, although others say there is no end to the number of laws. Very early, Christian leaders (especially Paul) saw the religion of Jesus as an alternative to rigid adherence to a set of laws. The truth is that, even before Jesus, there were differing interpretations of the significance of law.

Here in Matthew, though, Jesus seems to set a standard which is even higher. What are we to do? I doubt anyone ever really consistently obeyed every one of those 613 laws. Scripture tells us that we all sin and fall short.

The Old Testament readings, like those from last week, direct us toward a new understanding of those laws. So many of them had to do with the right conduct of rituals and worship, the offering of sacrifices, the ways to fast, etc. Isaiah looks at the practice of fasting, noting that the people may adhere rigidly to the rituals of fasting, but meanwhile they still go on oppressing their workers. (Isaiah 58:3) “Look,” he continues, “you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” (vs. 4) In contrast, the fast God wants is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your kin?” (vss. 6-7) Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it?

Note, in this season of Epiphany when we especially celebrate the shining of light (God’s and our own) in human life, that Isaiah says when we do these things, “then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” (vss. 8 & 10)

The Psalm could easily be used to promote the idea that if you only live according to the law you will get rich. (See vss. 1-3) It goes on, however, to describe these “righteous people” as ones who “have distributed freely . . . given to the poor.” (vs. 9) Verse four also talks about light rising in the darkness, although less in terms of the sharing emphasized by Isaiah and more in terms of reward.

So where am I going with this? It seems that the law—the righteousness—that is most important is that which leads to justice and harmony in human relationships. Even Jesus, and others before and after him, when asked which law came first, said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) In Mark’s Gospel his response ends with these words: “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)

In fact, that may be the higher righteousness to which Jesus in calling us in Matthew, chapter five. His words about the law are an introduction to the verses which follow when he contrasts old familiar laws with a new attitude. It is not so much the law that matters but the spirit behind the law. You can go all your life without killing someone, but still carry around a lot of hate. What you need to deal with is that hate? You may never rape anyone, and still be ruled by lust. The higher standard to which Jesus calls us is the spirit of the law. I believe that is what Paul is trying to get at when, in II Corinthians 3:6, when he speaks of the new covenant, being “not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

This week’s epistle reading, which is from earlier in Paul’s writings to the Corinthian church, is similar in tone, contrasting the wisdom of “this age or of the rulers of this age,” “words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things . . .” (See specifically I Corinthians 2:6 & 13, as well as the tone of the entire passage.)

There’s much more to be unpacked in these passages, like the emphases upon secrets being revealed (I Corinthians 2:7) and Jesus’ call to us, in Matthew, to be salt and light. (Matthew 5:13-16) Perhaps Pastor Rick will get into some of that on Sunday. For me, I’ll leave the primary emphasis (with one footnote to follow) on a call for us to pay attention to the spirit of the law. How good can we be? Not as good as the letter of the whole law, but even better if our spirits are filled and guided by God’s Spirit, the source which gives substance and meaning and purpose to every iota, jot and tittle, of the law, and to our lives.

The footnote: In the light of the continuing emphasis upon wisdom and foolishness and a bit of discussion that arose at this week’s breakfast at Mehri’s, I’ve been considering two images of Jesus—the Superstar and the Clown. Remember, Paul contrasts human wisdom and spiritual wisdom. Human wisdom values the superstar, the superhero, the rock idol, etc. In the 70s, when I was still a young man, two musical stage productions appeared almost simultaneously—the rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Godspell. I saw professional stage productions of both, including the original off-Broadway production of Godspell. In the first, at least in the production I saw, Jesus seems to be a kind of glitzy rock star—although there’s a lot more to the story than that. In Godspell Jesus is a clown who hangs out with a motley crew of somewhat ordinary folk. The emphasis is much more on the Sermon on the Mount and the nature and development of the group of disciples, although the crucifixion is not absent.

It’s not my purpose to critique either production or to assess it’s telling of the Gospel story. In the context of the discussion of foolishness and wisdom, I simply want to say that I find the image of Jesus as a clown, a “fool,” more appealing than that of the superstar. I enjoyed both productions, but I respond to a Jesus who is more circus clown than rock star.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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