Date: Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – February 19, 2017
Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Context: During the liturgical season of Ordinary Time, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel tend to work together thematically while the Epistle reading follows a simpler lectio continua format. Thematically, the three readings emphasize the priority of mercy and love for neighbor in contrast with an attitude of self-seeking. The Leviticus text provides some clear direction of what it means to love your neighbor, and precludes the unthinking affirmation or uncritical attitudes demanded today under the guise of love for neighbor. The psalm once again contrasts the desire to follow God’s precepts with the unpleasant reality of failure in this regard. We can recognize our selfishness as wrong but we struggle to control it, necessitating a reliance on an outside righteousness that can only come from God. Jesus drives this home in attacking the misuse of legal precepts also found in Leviticus.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 – How we treat one another matters a great deal, not just to ourselves and the people affected but ultimately to God. He creates every single person, and expects his people to see his handiwork in everyone they come into contact with. Nobody is to be mistreated, taken advantage of, or otherwise scorned or held as anything less than a creation of the Creator of the Universe. This is all part of being holy. Our behavior is a reflection of God’s feelings and attitudes towards all of creation. He loves us. He cares about us and for us and intends the best for each of us, and we are to expect and give nothing less than this with one another.
Psalm 119:33-40 – The psalmist desires to know God’s will and has the desire to do it. She trusts in God’s Word as the means of knowing God’s will so that she can follow it. The alternative would be to focus on personal gain (v.36). Such a self-centered attitude ultimately leads us to focus on things that have no value or worth – not in the eternal sense. Once again as the psalm draws to a close, we sense that despite the psalmist’s good intentions, his follow-through is lacking. He asks for God to affirm his promise to him (v.38), something that would hardly be necessary if the psalmist perfectly observed God’s laws the way he wanted to! He fears the Lord’s reproach for his failure, despite his understanding that God’s laws are good and that he should want to fulfill them. He knows the right thing to do and yet is unable to do it, something Paul expresses very well in Romans 7:7-25. The psalmist ends with the request that Paul asserts God has fulfilled in Jesus Christ – we receive the very righteousness of God through faith in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus the Messiah.
1 Corinthians 3:10-23 – Paul continues to deal with the proper way the Corinthians should consider himself, Apollos, Peter, and any other teachers they may encounter. All such teachers should only build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, the message of the Son of God crucified and resurrected for our blessing and righteousness. This is the foundation, and every good teacher should and must regard it as such and recognize that they can only build from here as equipped by God. Not all teachers will be equal in this task, however. Some will be better equipped for their task than others, or some may be inclined to attempt to do more than they are actually capable of accomplishing. Their efforts will be measured and tested and shown for what they are. This should be a source of humility to teachers in the faith, but it should also teach God’s people to have a reasonable reserve, not assuming that anyone who comes teaching in the name of Jesus is going to be capable or skilled in that regard. On the final day we’ll know what was of lasting value and what was not. This may not be an issue of salvation (v.15), but leads off of the idea Paul has already raised in v.8 that different teachers and evangelists may look forward to different rewards based on their work.
Why such concern about the work of those who preach and teach in the name of Jesus? Because the effects are experienced in the faithful, the followers of Jesus Christ, who are no less than temples of God the Holy Spirit. If a preacher or teacher does damage to one of these temples, they will be held accountable to God for this. That’s how much God loves every one of us!
Paul concludes with words perhaps aimed at the teachers who have misled the Corinthians as well as the Corinthians themselves. Humility is a wise attitude to maintain in all things, neither counting ourselves as too great, nor ascribing to others a greatness that might exceed their actual worth. Just because someone is rewarded for their efforts is not reason enough to assume that they are doing good work. So we are to boast only in Christ, recognizing that it is only through him that we have received all things, and that any human teacher or evangelist can only build on the foundation of Christ himself, and never replace or substitute it.
Matthew 5:38-48 – Jesus continues to clarify the intent of Scripture, in opposition to the application of Scripture that has led God’s people – through their leaders – to mistaken understandings of how God wants us to live our lives. Jesus quotes from Leviticus 24, verses 17-22. But what is the intent of these verses, which limit the extent of blood vengeance in the case of an injury or offense, while still seeking for not only justice but also obedience? Is God desiring that we should demand the harm of our neighbor in every instance where we have been harmed? Of course not! God desires the good of all his creation. Evil and malice must be restrained, and the Law functions towards that end. Restitution is sometimes necessary and good, but only within reasonable bounds.
Harm occurs and if possible we should seek to deal in mercy and forgiveness as God deals with each of us. When this is not possible or helpful, then restitution should be given. But that is not the goal. The goal is restitution of proper relationship. This extends not just to those we are in community with – friends and family and neighbors – but even to our enemies as well, which is where Jesus continues in v.43. The command to love is always a starting point, not a definition of the farthest boundary. If we hope that our neighbor will one day become our brother or sister in Christ, we need to treat them that way while they are still our enemy, in love and prayer. This is not to say that we should not take steps to protect ourselves, but there is a difference between self-protection and seeking actively for the harm of the other, just as there is a difference between reasonable restitution and seeking to leverage an advantage to someone else’s harm.
Loving only those who care for us is simply reasonable. But Jesus demonstrates God’s love in that God sends his Son to save sinners who will eventually scream for his crucifixion and mock him as He suffers and dies. We are to seek to emulate such sacrificial love in our lives.
But we should understand that we will fail at this. Likely far more often than we succeed. Which again is why the Law cannot be how we seek to justify ourselves with God. This is how Jesus began in v.20, and He reiterates it here in v.48. If we wish the Law to justify us, we must keep it perfectly and completely. We must be not just the most righteous people we know, we must be as perfect as our heavenly Father. Since none of us are, Jesus calls his hearers to re-evaluate our hopes for justification with God. We can’t rely on our own righteousness because it is inadequate. It doesn’t matter if we’re better than Hitler because God doesn’t grade on a curve.
We are to strive for holiness, but in response to God’s love rather than in an effort to secure it.