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Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

First Sunday after Christmas - December 29, 2013



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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Isaiah

This book can be divided into two (and possibly three) parts. Chapters 1 to 39 were written before the exile, from about 740 BC to about 700 BC. These were difficult times for the southern kingdom, Judah: a disastrous war was fought with Syria; the Assyrians conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, in 723 BC, and threatened Judah. Isaiah saw the cause of these events as social injustice, which he condemned, and against which he fought valiantly. Chapters 40 to 66 were written during and after the Exile in Babylon. They are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile. Some scholars consider that Chapters 56 to 66 form a third part of the book, written after the return to the Promised Land. These chapters speak of hope and despair; they berate the people for their sin, for worshipping other gods. Like Second Isaiah, this part speaks of the hope that God will soon restore Jerusalem to its former glory and make a new home for all peoples.


Isaiah 63:7-9

To understand when the prophet wrote these words, we need to skip forward to the next chapter. 64:10 speaks of “Jerusalem a desolation” and 64:11 says, with reference to the Temple, “Our holy and beautiful house ... has been burned by fire”. So this passage was written after the Babylonian conquest of 587 BC.

The prophet begins by recalling God’s “gracious deeds” (v. 7) of the past: how he has kept his covenant with his people. (“Steadfast love”, Hebrew: hesed, is a technical term for this.) He has given freely to them, trusted them (v. 8) and saved them from danger. In “days of old” (v. 9) God in person (“his presence”) – not a “messenger” (prophet), not an “angel” – “saved” (protected) them, “redeemed them” and “lifted them up” to him. We Christians believe that he has been present with us again: in Jesus being born into the world. V. 11 tells us that God was present with Israel in the days of “Moses”; then, God “-brought them up out of the sea”. Exodus 15:5,8 tells of God saving Israel (under Moses) as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Recall also the finding of baby Moses: Pharaoh’s daughter “ -named him Moses, ‘because ... I drew him out of the water’” (Exodus 2:10). In the following verses, the prophet is clearly distraught over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. He implores God to again have compassion on his people. So upset is he that he accuses God of making people stray from faith! (v. 17) V. 19 indicates that the prophet writes after the return from Exile: for years, the people have been ruled by those who do not consider God to be king of kings. May God come into their midst, as he did during the Exodus!


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 148

The psalter ends with five hallelujah (“Praise the LORD”) psalms, of which this is one. In vv. 1-6 the psalmist invites the heavens to praise God, then in vv. 7-12 he bids all on the earth to do so. Even inanimate objects (e.g. “sun and moon”, v. 3) are to praise him. Ancient cosmology held that the sun, moon and stars travelled on concentric hemispheres above the earth, and above them was God’s storehouse of “waters above the heavens” (v. 4), the source of rain and snow. God commanded that the heavens be created (v. 5). The movement of the celestial bodies follows an everlasting law (v. 6). The heavens shall praise him for creating them and making their existence permanent. In vv. 7-12, the list of created things proceeds from the lowest forms (“sea monsters”) to the highest, humans. The “wind” (v. 8, Hebrew: ruah) does God’s will; ruah also means spirit . In v. 11, “all peoples” are invited to praise the Lord.


Hebrews

Apart from the concluding verses (which may have been added later), this book is a treatise (or sermon) rather than a letter. Its name comes from its approach to Christianity: it is couched is Judaic terms. The identity of the author is unknown; Origen, c. 200 said that "only God knows" who wrote Hebrews. The book presents an elaborate analysis, arguing for the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of Christ as revealer and mediator of God's grace. Basing his argument on the Old Testament, the author argues for the superiority of Christ to the prophets, angels and Moses. Christ offers a superior priesthood, and his sacrifice is much more significant than that of Levite priests. Jesus is the "heavenly" High Priest, making the true sacrifice for the sins of the people, but he is also of the same flesh and blood as those he makes holy.


Hebrews 2:10-18

To ancients, the present world was controlled by angels; however, the “coming world” (v. 5), the way of being beyond time, was not. The author sees the source of the quotation in vv. 6-8 as irrelevant, for all scripture is to him the word of God. As translated here it shows that God has made humans, in this earthly life, inferior to angels; however in eternal life humans will be superior to “all things” (including angels.) We do not see this now (“as it is”, v. 8), but “we do see Jesus” (v. 9) – who became human temporarily, and is now exalted (“crowned”) as a consequence of dying. He died so that, as God’s gift to us, he might take on our deaths. (See v. 14: Jesus, in sharing our humanity, destroyed the “devil”, who caused death to be separation from God.) God is creator of all things; they exist for his purposes (v. 10). It was per God’s saving plan (“It was fitting”) that God, in bringing many of us to share eternal life, should bring Jesus, the one who goes before us (into eternal life) and points the way for us (“pioneer”), to the completion of his mission “through sufferings”.

We share with him (“the one who sanctifies”, v. 11, sets us apart, for God’s plans) the same “Father” (God, and also proto-human, Adam) through the birth of Jesus. This the author demonstrates by quoting from three psalms (vv. 12-13). The glorified Christ praises God in the midst of the “congregation”, ekklesia, church. Perhaps in v. 13 the author alludes to the context in Isaiah: there Isaiah states the trustworthiness of God’s word – that others have rejected. (In v. 14, “flesh” is human nature, in its weakness.) Hellenistic Judaism held that God did not plan for humans to die, that the devil introduced death into the world. Jesus came to help believers (“descendants ...”, v. 16), not angels. Christ, as compassionate and trustworthy “high priest” (v. 17) ended severance from God in death, through removing sin. Jesus was “tested” (v. 18), tempted to desert his mission throughout his life, so he is able to help those whose faith is weakened now.


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 60 to 70 AD, possibly for a largely Jewish audience.


Matthew 2:13-23

“Wise men from the East” (v. 1) came to Herod the Great asking “‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’” (v. 2) They have visited “the child with Mary” (v. 11). “paid him homage” and “offered him gifts”. They have now returned to “their own country” (v. 12). A divine messenger warns Joseph to flee with his family. The wise men “tricked” (v. 16) Herod by leaving “by another road” (v. 12). In Hosea, “my son” (v. 15) is Israel, the people of God. A verse that recalled God’s acts to save Israel from bondage is now applied to Jesus, he who offers to save all people. (Herod has all the infants in the Bethlehem area killed because he fears that Jesus may succeed to his throne, rather than a son of his.) In Jeremiah (v. 18), Rachel weeps over the exile of her sons; a mother’s grief is unique. V. 20 is much like God’s words to Moses, as he sends him to lead Israel out of bondage. Jesus is the new leader of God’s people. Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, governed “Galilee” (v. 22) benignly compared to the way his brother “Archelaus” governed Judea. Joseph may also have chosen to make his home in “Nazareth” (v. 23) because he could find work on the reconstruction of neighbouring Sepphoris. The quotation is not from the Old Testament. Perhaps Matthew is provoking his readers to think; perhaps he harks back to Isaiah 11:1: “-a branch [nezer] shall grow” out of Jesse’s “-roots”. David was Jesse’s son.

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