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Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

The Epiphany - January 6, 2014



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 60:1-6

Darius, King of Persia, has permitted the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem. The prophet tells the people to arise, for joy, prosperity and salvation (“light”) are now in the city; God is with them; they will reflect the presence and power (“glory”) of God. In the Middle East, dawn comes suddenly: dark almost instantly becomes day. Many peoples will live in “darkness” (v. 2, gloom, oppression) but Israel will be different: God will come to them, be present with them and act for them. Many nations will come to pay homage to God. Only some of the exiles returned from Babylon, but soon those who scattered during troubled times (e.g. the conquest of Jerusalem) will return (“gather”, v. 4) and form a community. People from all nations will come to the city to see God’s activity among his people. The returnees will grow in their knowledge of God (“shall see”, v. 5) and will tell others (“be radiant”); they will be joyful because other nations will make them prosperous.

The wealth of Arabia will come to them on a “multitude of camels” (v. 6). “Midian and Ephah” were tribes east of the Gulf of Aqaba. “Sheba” may be modern-day Yemen, the source of “gold and frankincense”, gifts the wise men brought to infant Jesus. All those who come will proclaim God’s might. Jerusalem, destroyed by foreigners, will be rebuilt by foreigners (v. 10).


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 72:1-7,10-14

In the ancient Near East, kings were next to gods. A king and his heir were seen as endowed with justice by gods, and had special responsibility for the poor and needy. Kings possessed a supernatural aura. Even in Israel the king was called God’s son; in 2:7, the king is adopted as son of God. Many of the verses begin with “ -May ...”: this psalm is a prayer for the king, possibly written for a coronation. Vv. 2-4 pray that the king may be guarantor for the poor, those who are oppressed – that he may rescue them. Vv. 5-6 seek that the king may live for ever, or at least to a great age. May he, like a god, provide the elements of nature needed for bountiful harvests. In his days, may godliness and prosperity (“peace”, v. 7) be abundant. V. 8 says “May he have dominion from sea to sea ...” May he be sovereign over many nations. (“Tarshish”, v. 10, was probably in Spain; “the isles” may be Crete and Cyprus.) The king will form a bond with the poor (v. 14b).


Ephesians

This letter of Paul was written from prison, probably in Rome. Whilst the Bible states that it was written to the church at Ephesus, the some early manuscripts do not contain an addressee in 1:1. This would imply that Ephesians was a circular letter, sent to a number of churches. If so, it introduced a new idea into letter writing: we know of no other circular letters from this period. This book celebrates the life of the church, a unique community established by God through the work of Jesus Christ, who is its head, and also the head of the whole creation.


Ephesians 3:1-12

Paul’s advocacy of Gentiles as full and equal members of the church has led to his imprisonment. In this passage, the author recounts his mission to the Gentiles. He assumes that his readers have heard of how he became a Christian, how God appeared to him (“revelation”, v. 3) as he travelled to Damascus to persecute Christians (Acts -9:1-22). The “few words” about the “mystery” are those in 1:8b-10: Jews and Gentiles are both called to join in Christ’s saving activity, as part of God’s plan, to be completed when God sees fit. Paul’s readers need to determine the truth of this revelation for themselves (v. 4). The Old Testament (“in former generations”, v. 5) mentions the salvation of other nations, but this was not understood; now, from “apostles and prophets” through the Holy Spirit, we do understand (v. 5). The sense of v. 6 is that the Gentiles have become co-heirs, co-members and co-partners: in Greek each word begins with syn (as in synchronous .)

Paul, the “very least of all the saints” (v. 8, for he persecuted Christians), has, in the paradoxical way of Christianity, become the apostle to the Gentiles, to bring us the news of the inexhaustible “riches” of Christ, and to have all understand that, in God’s plan established in the beginning, Gentiles are to form an integral part of the new Israel. It is through the church, the beneficiary of God’s gifts, that God’s saving ways (“wisdom”, v. 10) are to be made known to evil heavenly beings (“rulers and authorities”) who, before Christ’s death, controlled humanity. This role of the church is part of God’s purpose, carried out in Christ. Faith in Christ gives us the ability to come into God’s presence boldly.


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 2:1-12

Matthew, in writing “In the time of King Herod”, sets a late date for the birth of Jesus: Herod the Great, puppet king of Judah, died in 4 BC. “Wise men” (Latin: magi) were members of a Persian caste of astrologers and interpreters of dreams. (Astrology was widely accepted then.) A star was associated with each person; the way the star rose told the wise men that a king had been born. If the story of the star is intended to be historically significant, the star may have been a supernova or a comet, or a conjunction of planets. Numbers 24:17-24 prophesies that “-... a star shall come out of Jacob, a sceptre shall rise out of Israel”, and that this ruler will conquer surrounding nations.

Herod’s fears are aroused because his dynasty may be ended. He consults the religious experts to find out where the magi should look for the Messiah. They answer with Scripture: they loosely blend Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2. (Such license was common at the time.) At David’s anointing as king, the elders quote God as saying “-he shall be shepherd of my people Israel”. The maximum age of the children to be killed per Herod’s edict (v. 16) tells us the “exact time” (v. 7) that he learnt from the wise men. V. 8 is classical political duplicity. The star guides them to Bethlehem, where they are “overwhelmed with joy” (v. 10). The gifts are extremely generous; “gold” (v. 11) and “frankincense” are mentioned in v. 6 of today’s first reading.

We read that Gentile wise men visited Jesus. A later church tradition called the wise men kings, based on v. 10 of today’s psalm, and still later the Church said that there were three of them. The Western church gave them names.

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