Year A — The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 20, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

I know I may get in trouble for saying this, but I’ve always kind of liked the Leviticus version of the “Ten Commandments” better than Exodus 20. I know that, technically, this is not the Decalogue; these are not the Big Ten that we should actually know, revere, and practice. (In an amusing sidebar — have you ever noticed that many of the people who are most passionate about their “right” to post the Ten Commandments in schools, public buildings, etc., often couldn’t name even five of them if asked to do so?)

But this particular passage puts a somehow more “human” spin on the things God wants us to know and do. To wit:

* Don’t hog all of your own harvest; leave a little for those who don’t own any land and who are not part of the means of production. (Nah, maybe that’s too “socialist” to be practical in 21st-century America!)
* Don’t steal; don’t deal falsely; don’t lie. (Straightforward and simple enough, though, again kind of challenging in the moral/ethical/political climate of contemporary society.)
* It’s not nice to fool your neighbor (OR Mother Nature!) — a second time we are told, “Don’t steal!” — and don’t hold on to the money you owe someone else in order to earn a little extra interest yourself.
* My absolute favorite — and proof that God most definitely has a sense of humor — “Don’t cuss at a deaf man, and don’t stick your leg out in front of a person who is blind!” (You’d think we could figure that one out on our own…but, well, there you go. Must have something to do with that whole depravity issue.)

Basically, all of these are extensions of that opening sentence: “Be holy, in the same way that God is holy.” Dare to be different! Go ahead and confuse the heck out of those around you by being nice without a cause! Share a little extra with those less fortunate — without being asked or even “panhandled!”

Psalm 119:33-40

Another beautiful section of Psalm 119. I like the “sensual” detail of this passage; by that, I mean the attention to the senses.”Turn my heart…open my eyes…fill my mind with understanding.” God’s words really do affect us at every level.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Another succinct summary from the Apostle, reinforcing the previously-addressed issue of petty jealousy in the church. “Look, people, we all share a common foundation in Christ. God calls different members of the body to do different things. Paul works this way, Apollos works that — and Cephas! Don’t get me started on Cephas! They’re all different but all valuable!”

The bottom line: we all belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Maybe a little patience, compassion, and understanding are in order while God’s way in our midst is being revealed?

Matthew 5:38-48

Perfect? Are you kidding, Jesus? Be perfect?

Sure, we all know that God is perfect, but how can Jesus really expect us to be and do and act and think in the same ways as God?

I’m not the world’s most proficient Greek scholar, but I think Matthew’s choice of the word teleios here has something to do with the “process of coming to maturity” that Jesus expects of his followers. As we have been invited to follow Jesus – to join him on the road of discovery and discipleship, as it were — this is about keeping our feet moving forward on the path. Don’t stop too long to rest; don’t turn back; keep working with the tools you’ve been given. That sort of thing.

Those tools have proven to be pretty powerful over 2,000 or so years. The image of surrendering cloaks, marching for a mile with a soldier’s pack, getting struck on the cheek, etc., come straight out of the everyday experience of Jews who were compelled by Roman soldiers in all of these ways. God’s people — Jews and Christians alike — are still around. Last time I checked, Roman soldiers: not so much!

by Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago a Supreme Court judge in Alabama tried to place a monument with the Ten Commandments on it in the State Supreme Court building in Montgomery.  Of course all sorts of publicity and lawsuits and legal wrangling ensued.
One day there was a huge rally in support of the Ten Commandments monument being placed in the courthouse.  A radio reporter went through the crowd, asking the rally-ers to name the Ten Commandments.  The average person in that crowd new less than four of the ten.
What if you read the lesson from Leviticus 19 to the average American crowd?  How many would think you were reading the Ten Commandments?  Perhaps they would think to themselves, “Gee, that doesn’t sound exactly right, but it has that bit about parents and not stealing and it does say “you shall not” a lot, so it must be them.”
Whenever the subject of human sexuality comes up in the church, Leviticus gets quoted very frequently.  It is fascinating that the same people who are so fond of Leviticus and going by the letter of the law about that subject seem never to quote Leviticus or want to obey it when the subject is economic and social justice.
Few are anxious to hear and obey words about being generous to the poor and especially not to the “alien,” the “immigrant.” And most of us would rather listen to Donald Trump’s first ex-wife when she says, “Don’t get mad, get even,” rather than hear the word of Leviticus when it says “You shall not take vengeance of bear a grudge.”
Yes, it appears we have a selective approach to hearing and obeying the word of the LORD, and that’s not really a bad thing; if we know we’re doing it and we know how we’re doing.
The trouble comes when we vehemently quote and insist on obedience to that part of the bible we happen to agree with and ignore or dismiss those things we find distasteful or inconvenient or out of line with either our politics  or our economic self interest.
This has been a long Epiphany and a long stretch of examining what Jesus had to say in the Sermon on the Mount. Week after week we have heard Jesus raise the ante on what it means to obey God’s Law.  “You have heard it said but I say to you,” has been a constant refrain.
This week we read “You have heard it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” But I say to you, “do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The rest of this lesson explores this radical call to love and non-violence. 
Here we see Jesus reinterpreting the Scriptures in a new way. It will not do for us to simply say, “Well, he could do that, after all he was the Christ, the Son of God, so it was his prerogative.” There is more to what’s going on here than that.
For most of the time period in which the Hebrew Scriptures were formed, the vision of what it meant to be a people of God had to do with the unique nation-state-tribe that was Israel and many of the commandments and rules were influenced by the need to shape that tribe into a godly people.
The coming of Jesus as the Christ and the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is both a continuation of that project and an expansion of its purpose to the whole world.  So what has been proclaimed before is recast in a new way because of a new reality.
This is why Jesus can both say, “I did not come to destroy the law but fulfill it,” at the same time he is saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”  Jesus sees himself as obeying the law and commandments by finding new ways to live them out.
This is always a difficult tightrope and in every generation we in the church find it difficult to keep from slipping off.  It is also a tightrope we have been walking ever since the council at Jerusalem reflected in Acts chapter 15, when the early church decided which Hebrew Scripture dietary laws applied to gentiles who became Christians and which did not.  It was an imperfect compromise and we have been struggling with it ever since.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount and especially in today’s lesson Jesus calls us back to the Hebrew Scriptures underlying vision of the people of God as agents of God’s love and holiness in the world. 
A golden thread of God’s mercy and steadfast love weaves its way through the Old Testament stories.  It is sometimes hard to follow the thread, but it’s always there, lurking in the background or beneath the surface occasionally bursting into full flower in the prophets and the psalms.
As we read and try to live out the Scriptures in our day  and in our lives, this golden thread of grace, this constantly pulsating rhythm of mercy, this undying stream of divine favor and love; must be at the core of our reading and our living.
Amen and amen.

One thought on “Year A — The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

  1. Pingback: Year A: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (February 23, 2014) | The Lectionary Lab

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