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Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany - February 12, 2017



Saint Dominic contemplating the Scriptures

Saint Dominic
contemplating the Scriptures

Comments have been prepared by Chris Haslam using reputable commentaries, and checked for accuracy by the Venerable Alan T Perry, of the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. While not intended to be exhaustive, they are an aid to reading the Scriptures with greater understanding.

Comments are best read with the lessons.

Feedback to is always welcome.


Lessons for this week from the Vanderbilt University web site

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Sirach

Sirach is also known as Sira and Ecclesiasticus, probably meaning church book, an indication that it was used by the early Christian community. It is in the Apocrypha of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and is considered deutero-canonical by Roman Catholics. Adherents to Judaism excluded it from the Bible, as did the Protestant Reformers. We know (from 50:27) that Jesus ben Sira, a native of Jerusalem, wrote it. Ben Sira ran a school in biblical studies for young Jewish men. Written about 180 BC, it is faithful to the author's Jewish heritage and tradition and makes use of ideas from other cultures where they are compatible with his heritage.


Sirach 15:15-20

Two verses in the Old Testament seem to imply that God causes a person to sin at times:

  • God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” in Exodus 11:10 and
  • in 2 Samuel 24:1 God “incited David” to count how many subjects he has – out of pride.
  • But Sirach disagrees: in no way can God be held responsible for human sinfulness (vv. 11-12). God not only hates sin but he even preserves the godly person from committing it (v. 13).

    In v. 14, he says that God “left them in the power of their own free choice”. (A scholar says that inclination is a better translation.) One can incline:

  • towards godliness (“life”, v. 17) by obeying the Law (v. 15) or
  • towards ungodliness (“death”, v. 17) by refusing to obey.
  • God does allow us to go our own way, but he is always there to help us follow his ways. Only with his love can we attain eternal life. “Fire and water” (v. 16) are opposite extremes, and don’t mix. There are two choices; they are mutually exclusive. Then vv. 18-20: even though God is omniscient (he knows all that we think and do), he does not cause people to sin.


    Deuteronomy

    Deuteronomy is a book of instruction, or torah. It is the fifth book of the Bible. It recasts Israel's mission and destiny, mostly by restating the history of the people recorded in the first four books. It emphasizes teaching and learning for all generations. Moses speaks on God's behalf, with authority, to the assembled people of Israel, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.


    Deuteronomy 30:15-20

    The setting is the plains of Moab, as the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. The book states that Moses is the speaker, but the laws given in Chapters 12-28 are updated versions of those in earlier books. Times have changed since Sinai: the people were semi-nomads then; now they are farmers and shepherds. It is a time of religious revival, of new commitment to God. V. 6 puts the Law in a new light: God will “circumcise your heart” – he will work changes within the people so love becomes the driving force. Note also v. 20: “loving the Lord your God ...”. They will keep the Law because they love God.

    Our reading summarizes Chapters 27-28, which tell of:

  • the ways in which the Israelites will be blessed if they keep this expanded and updated covenant; and
  • the consequences of failing to keep many of the laws, i.e. being excluded from the community.
  • Then it offers a choice: keep the laws in love and obedience, or suffer the consequences of following other paths. Keeping the Law because you love God will have many benefits, including long life (“length of days”, v. 20).


    Psalms

    Psalms is a collection of collections. The psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon's temple (about 950 BC) to after the Exile (about 350 BC.) Psalms are of five types: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. Within the book, there are five "books"; there is a doxology ("Blessed be ... Amen and Amen") at the end of each book.


    Psalm 119:1-8

    This is the first stanza (of 22, one for each successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet) of the longest psalm. Each of the verses of this stanza begins with aleph, the first letter. The whole psalm is in praise of the Law (the expression of God’s covenant with humankind in the Old Testament) and of keeping it. The emphasis is on the love and desire for the word of God in Israel’s law, rather than being burdened with it. The psalm begins with a prayer for help in observing the Law. To be “happy” (vv. 1-2) is to be blessed by God. As in other stanzas, various words are used for “law”; here they are “precepts”, “statutes” “commandments”, and “ordinances”. The psalmist seeks to avoid sin, and to live in God’s ways.


    1 Corinthians

    Corinth was a major port which also commanded the land route from the Peloponnesus peninsula to central Greece. An industrial and ship-building centre, it was also a centre for the arts. Its inhabitants came from far and wide. In this epistle, Paul answers two letters he has received concerning lack of harmony and internal strife in the Corinthian church, a church he had founded. Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus (now in Turkey), probably in 57 AD.


    1 Corinthians 3:1-9

    In Chapter 1, Paul says that he has learnt that there are divisions in the church at Corinth, that some adhere to particular leaders of the community rather than to Christ. The faith only makes sense to those who understand it spiritually, so he addresses them not as “spiritual people” (v. 1) but as neophytes (“infants”). He has been criticized for oversimplifying the good news, but their “jealousy and quarrelling” (v. 3) demonstrate that they are still only earthly minded, are still behaving according to human standards (“inclinations”).

    It is natural to be attached to the person who welcomed you into the church, but you need to recognize that they are all “servants” (v. 5) of Christ. Each has a distinct function in bringing you to faith. Paul founded the church at Corinth (“planted”, v. 6); Apollos nurtured faith (“watered”) in the community; but it is God who causes spirituality and faith to grow. He and Apollos have the same objective (v. 8). Perhaps the rewards (“wages”) are in seeing the church grow; perhaps they are in heaven. Paul and Apollos are co-workers. In the following verses, Paul expands on the church as “God’s building” (v. 9).


    Symbol of St Matthew

    Matthew

    This gospel is the first in the New Testament, but it was probably the second to be written. Scholars recognize that it borrows material from Mark, and from a sayings source containing sayings of Jesus and known as Q (for Quelle, German for source). The author shows an understanding of Jewish culture and religion not found in the other gospels. It was probably written about 80 to 90 AD, possibly for a largely Jewish audience.


    Matthew 5:21-37

    Jesus has made clear that his mission is not to do away with (“abolish”) the Old Testament; rather he fleshes out its meaning fully (“fulfill”, v. 17). He speaks particularly about Mosaic law; it will remain in force until he comes again at the end of the era (v. 18). In v. 19, he seems to soften his tone: whether or not one keeps and teaches every one of the 613 laws, one will be admitted to the Kingdom. The scribes and Pharisees kept all the laws scrupulously. Now he explains how their adherence to the Law is insufficient.

    Each of Jesus’ expansions of the Law begins with “[You have heard that] it was said” (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). He then quotes a law. “Ancient times” refers to the days of Moses. The Ten Commandments forbid the act of murder (v. 21). Jesus extends this law to include propensities to kill: nursing anger, calling someone good for nothing (as the Greek says) or a “fool” (v. 22). Vv. 23-24 say that reconciliation take priority even over worship, to a Jew the most sacred act. Vv. 25-26 may be a parable: the Kingdom of God is at hand; seek reconciliation “quickly” lest God, the judge, finds against you. Jesus offers forgiveness.

    Vv. 27-28, give another example. Avoiding adultery is not enough; even for a man to “look at a woman with a lustful eye” (Revised English Bible) is unacceptable. God expects purity of thought and desire as well as of action. Vv. 29-30 look extreme; they are meant figuratively, not literally. Jesus advises that one discard, promptly and decisively, anything in one’s life that tempts one to turn away from God.

    Divorcing a wife was easy for a man in Palestine: in some circles, he could simply write her a “certificate of divorce” (v. 31) without cause. Jesus’ point here is that marriage is indissoluble, lifelong. He probably thinks of Genesis 2:24: in marriage, God makes man and wife “one flesh”. He makes one exception: “on the ground of unchastity” (v. 32). The Greek word means unlawful sexual behaviour, including adultery. He forbids remarriage because the first marriage still exists. This extension of the Law was not onerous for first-century Christians, for they expected the world to end soon, and they could live separately from their spouses. One swore an oath (vv. 33-37) to guarantee that what one said on a particular occasion was the truth. We still do it in court appearances today. Isaiah 66:1 refers to “earth” (v. 35) as God’s “footstool”; “Jerusalem” is God’s city (“... of the great King”). They are part of his realm. To “swear by your head” (v. 36) is to swear by oneself. Jesus says one should always tell only the truth. When one does, there is no need for swearing[-in]. A truthful person is consistent in what he says. Inconsistency is a sign that one has turned against God (v. 37). Perhaps Jesus actually said something like James 5:12: “let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no”.

    © 1996-2016 Chris Haslam



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