Reading Ramblings – February 23, 2014

Date:  Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2014

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40;  1 Corinthians 3:10-23; Matthew 5:38-48

 

Context: This is the last regular Sunday of Epiphany, and the last Sunday of Ordinary Time until June 22.  Next Sunday is the Feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration, and the following Wednesday is Ash Wednesday (3/5) and the beginning of Lent.

 

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 — Once again God’s people are exhorted to holy living.  The reason for this is not arbitrary—God is holy, therefore his people must be holy.  Is this an insight into the enigmatic assertion in Genesis 1:26-27?  Is our holiness a facet of how we are created in God’s image?  It would seem so.  But if last week’s admonitions against lust, murderous intentions and divorce sound manageable, the list of holy behaviors this week clearly demonstrates that we are unable to maintain holiness.  Our behavior towards our neighbor is to be blameless, regardless of how our neighbor treats us.  Holiness is not a response to holiness, but intrinsic to itself.  Regardless of those around us, we are to respond in holiness.

Psalm 119:33-40— Once again, it is not that we don’t know that God’s will is good, that holiness is truly to be desired.  Yet this is often how we act, as if God must continually tell us over and over again what is expected of us.  But the quest for knowledge in verses 1-2 transitions rapidly to a plea for God’s overt aid.  He cannot just teach us, He must help us if we are to have any hope of holiness.  The overtness of the aid intensifies from leading and our active following, to changing our heart, to actually directing our bodies.  Even still, this is not enough.  Verses 38-40 are a confession that despite knowledge, despite the Lord’s assistance, we are still without hope of holiness.  We are still in need not only of the wisdom and assistance of God, but his full grace and forgiveness. 

1 Corinthians 3:10-23 — Where Paul began this chapter with an exhortation to the Corinthians not to make personalities the source of division amongst them, he now exhorts those leaders whom the people take pride in to soberly consider their efforts.  Very important things are at stake here.  Those who follow in St. Paul’s footsteps, building on the foundation he has laid, will be judged, just as he will be judged.  Verses 16-17 in this context are addressed back to the Corinthians—they must realize how seriously God holds them in his hands, and the high expectations He holds of those who purport to lead and teach them.  Those in Christ have received all things, the most important and enduring of which is Jesus Christ and therefore God himself.  If they have such amazing blessings, then the importance of individual teachers pales in comparison and should never be a point of division or contention.

Matthew 5:38-48 — The Lord’s teaching in this passage continues to intensify, as He systematically sets out to disabuse his disciples of the notion that their righteousness is to be found in obedience to the Law.  Rather, their salvation is found in relationship to him, the one who has already made them blessed (5:1-12), salt and light (13-16).  This is not because of their personal righteousness, but rather that they have received their righteousness in Jesus’ coming to perfectly and completely fulfill the Law, from the most obvious maxims to the tiniest nuances (5:17-20).  The Law is not disbanded in Jesus but fulfilled.  In that fulfillment, those in Christ are pronounced righteous not because they reject the Law but because they are free to embrace the Law not as their master and source of condemnation, but in joyful response to being declared righteous.  Of course the righteous will obey the law!  And when we fail, as we must fail until we are perfected in Christ’s return, we are forgiven and judged by grace, not by the Law.

Today’s verses focus on our response to others.  If verses 21-37 could broadly be described as how we choose to act towards others, regardless of their actions towards us, verses 38-48 deal with how we respond to the behavior of others.  What is our due when we are clearly wronged?  What do we strive for in our relationships?   Preservation of pride?  Keeping face?  Making sure that all things are even-steven?  Or is there a greater goal towards which the righteous and blessed in Christ persevere? 

The teachers of the Law (in Jesus’ day and our own) have come to stress the rights we are entitled to  when we are wronged.  Reasonable compensation when we are injured.  But this is not ultimately the concern of salt and light.  Salt and light have no need of pride of place in the world’s order.  There is no compensation that can compare to the righteousness received freely in Christ.  So we are freed from thinking in such narrow and often vindictive terms.  We are capable of grand and extravagant grace and mercy and love in the face of abuse.  What better witness can we give to the love of Jesus than to reject the world’s affirmations of what matters? 

Likewise, worldly wisdom and standards would dictate that even if you were to show such graciousness to your friends, to those like you, to those who agree with you, there is never an expectation of such generosity to those who disagree with you, to those who strive against you, to those who wish you ill.  Be good to your friends if you like, but you are entitled to hate your enemy. 

Not so says Jesus.  Does God only love those like me?  Those who agree with me?  Those who view the world and God the way I do?  Has not God created everyone and everything in creation?  Is there anyone exempt from his love and grace?  How could it be that salt and light would be selective in whom they season, in whom they shine on?  Are not salt and light not needed most where there is no saltiness already?  Where there is nothing but darkness?  Is it not here that salt and light are most profoundly experienced for what they are? 

Once again, the exhortation to perfection in vs. 48 is clear.  This is what is expected of us.  This is also what we are incapable of.  In relationship to Christ we find forgiveness and grace and his righteousness given over to us.  Without relationship to Christ, there is only the perfect and good Law of God showing us how we ought to be, and condemning us for failing to be so.  We either rely on Christ to make us salt and light, or we must perfectly follow every step to making ourselves salt and light—and we must always fail at this if left to our own abilities.  We need a Savior.  We need someone who can fulfill the law on our behalf and share that righteousness with us.  We need not just a wise teacher, we need the Son of God made flesh.  As the season of Epiphany—and Transfiguration Sunday—make clear, this is exactly what we have received in Jesus of Nazareth.  Praise God! 

 

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