Engaging the Word: 02/12/17 (The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany)

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 By Barbara Klugh

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary text. This week we have guidelines on how we can live well in relationship to God and to one another.

Moses Seeing the Promised Land by Christian Rohifs, 1912. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Moses Seeing the Promised Land by Christian Rohifs, 1912. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20: The book of Deuteronomy is set up as a series of three speeches delivered by Moses when the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land. The action takes place c. 1400 BC, but various authors and editors composed the text from the 8th to 6th centuries (pre-exile to post-exile). Using the name of a prestigious figure from the past—Moses in this case—was a common practice in the Ancient Near East. It gave authority to the text and a link to the past.

I love our reading this week, from the third speech. Moses tells the people to choose how they will live. If they love God, and devote themselves to obeying the commandments, then they will prosper. “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.” Then Moses, still speaking for God, says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. CHOOSE LIFE so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him (emphasis added).”

The phrase “Choose Life,” is a touchstone for me whenever I’m unsure of what to do. The words “Choose Life!” often spring to mind, and I try (often failing, but sometimes successful) to hold fast to God and choose the action that will grow God’s Kingdom. Really, what else are we here for?

 Psalm 119:1-8: This week we have the first of 22 stanzas of Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the Psalter. Next week we’ll have another. We read other stanzas in October and November last year. This psalm reminds us that we can live in a close and trusting relationship with God by following the path he has set out for us.

St. Paul by Holbein, c.1510s. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul by Holbein, c.1510s. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Corinthians: We continue with the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Paul is concerned about the divisions, discord, and factions within the Corinthian church. This week Paul addresses the roles that have been assigned to himself and Apollos.

Paul begins by telling the Corinthians that they are spiritual infants.The Corinthians thought of themselves as the spiritually elite, but Paul knew better. They are jealous and quarreling among themselves about whether they “belong to Paul” or “belong to Apollos.” They are behaving as if they hadn’t received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Paul points out that he and Apollos are just doing the work as the Lord assigned. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” The Corinthian people belong to God, not to Paul or to Apollos.

This reminds me of when people say, “I was baptized as a Methodist,” or “I was baptized as an Episcopalian, “ and so on, as if the Christian denomination were more important than the fact that all of us are baptized “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Hands across the Divide by Maurice Harron, 1991. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hands across the Divide by Maurice Harron, 1991. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Matthew 5:21-37: The Gospel According to Matthew has an interesting structure, with five sets of text alternating between narrative and discourse. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 are devoted to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is the first and best known of Jesus’ discourses. We continue with Jesus’ sermon this week.

Jesus raises the bar of behavior to a higher standard than that of obeying the letter of the law. He wants his disciples to be transformed by the deeper meaning behind the law. In our reading, Jesus talks about anger, adultery, divorce, and making vows. Jesus introduces the contrasts between the law, “You have heard that it was said….” and his expansion and explanation, “But I say…”

Several scholars, including John Hiigel in Partnering with the King   show the three-part pattern Jesus uses with each subject. From John Hiigel:

(1) Your have heard the Law’s commandment;

(2) But by God’s authority, I so say to you that God intends for you to keep the commandment more thoroughly and from a changed heart; and

(3) Here are some creative “transforming initiatives*” you could do as disciples to live out this greater righteousness in practical ways.

Here’s an example from this week’s reading:

(1)   “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ (The Law)

(2)   But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. (Change of heart)

(3)   Let your word be `Yes, Yes’ or `No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Transforming initiative—let all your speech be simple and honest.)

This idea gave me a deeper understanding for Jesus’ teaching. He’s not only giving us a diagnosis of what’s wrong, but wants us to change our hearts and demonstrate that change of heart though our behavior.

* Hiigel credits Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gusher for the phrase, “transforming initiatives.”

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