Feb 5, 2017: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

 happiness-is-a-habit

1st Reading – Isaiah 58:7-10

Thus says the LORD:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

Thus says the LORD:  Share your bread with the hungry,

Literally, “break your bread” (see Acts 2:46; Mark 6:41; Mark 14:22).  This is a very intimate act of sharing — not from a distance or through an agency, but face to face.  Neither is this an act of giving of one’s surplus: the giver and recipient eat from the same loaf.

shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them,

The original Hebrew version of this text highlights a level of personal involvement when meeting the needs of others, stating that the poor who have been cast out are to be brought into one’s own house.  The naked are to be covered whenever they are encountered.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ final judgment depends upon the acts of mercy mentioned here.

and do not turn your back on your own.

In other words, do not hide from the demands made by your kin.  Be open to any all and requests made of you.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

The blessings that follow the selfless living prescribed all suggest some form of deliverance.

Note that Isaiah’s audience was a people who had only recently returned from exile.  They were in the midst of reconstructing their society, their political system, and their Temple.  We may think that caring for ourselves and for those for whom we are responsible is all we can manage, but Isaiah is calling for us to care for the needy in their need not merely when we feel secure and it is convenient.

If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;

This second set of injunctions addresses other social concerns in addition to the basic human needs mentioned before.  Oppression takes many forms and could refer to economic burdens, political repression, or social abuse.

If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

Isaiah is speaking to people steeped in anguish, stuck in “the gloom.”  His advice for them is to share their bread with the hungry, which may seem odd and impractical.  His point, however, is this: no matter how bleak our current state is, we always have bread to bestow on the hungry.  If we reach out to satisfy the afflicted,  “then light shall rise for you in the darkness.”  Actively sharing in the misery of others is the sure way out of our own.

We will see this theme of light echoed in today’s gospel reading.  When sharing makes the wealthy poor, and the poor share their spirit of humble dependence upon God with the wealthy, the final age will have come.  God will fill the need of the world with his glorious presence.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of Spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.

In today’s reading, Paul explains that there is nothing extraordinary about him or his manner of ministry.  Not only will that not hamper the spread of the gospel, it will advance the manifestation of the power of God.

When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God,

The “mystery of God” is his plan for the salvation of his people, known only to himself.  It is clear from earlier parts of this letter (1:18-25) that this mystery of salvation involves Jesus and the cross.

Some good manuscripts read “testimony” instead of mystery.

I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. 

Corinth was heavily influenced by Greek culture, and Greek orators of the day were renowned for their eloquence and devotion to wisdom (sophía).  Paul declares that this was not his approach in proclaiming the gospel.

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

Paul’s attention is focused on the crucified Christ; not the type of savior that either the Jews or the Gentiles expected.  This is both the mystery and the scandal of Christian faith: the world has been saved by what appears to be human failure.

I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,

The seeming weakness of the crucified Jesus is reflected in Paul’s own bearing.  “Fear and much trembling” is reverential awe based on God’s transcendence, Paul’s awareness of which permeates his life.  Compare this phrasing to his advice to the Philippians to work out their salvation with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), because God is at work in them just as his exalting power was paradoxically at work in the emptying, humiliation, and obedience of Jesus to death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-11).

Paul also had reason to fear for his safety, based on the difficulties he experienced in Corinth (Acts 18:5-17).

Was Paul really afraid of danger? Yes, he was, for even though he was Paul, he was still a man. This is not to say anything against him but rather about the infirmity of human nature. Indeed it is to the credit of his sense of determination that even when he was afraid of death and beatings, he did nothing wrong because of this fear. Therefore those who claim that Paul was not afraid of being beaten not only do not honor him, they diminish his greatness. For if he was without fear, what endurance or self-control was there in bearing dangers? [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 6,2]

and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

The conviction Paul’s message conveyed and the success that met his preaching at Corinth were due to the Holy Spirit, and not to rhetorical eloquence or philosophic reasoning. Thus, the faith of the Corinthians rests on God’s power and not in the cleverness of a human preacher.

Gospel – Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount directly follows the Beatitudes, which were last week’s gospel reading.  In homey metaphors from his time, Jesus reveals what his people are called to be: the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and a city set on a mountain.

Jesus said to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth.

In the ancient world, salt was rare and highly regarded.  It was traded along with gems and gold, and the Romans thought so much of salt that part of a soldier’s pay was a ration of salt, a practice which led to the word “salary.”

Salt is not only essential for life itself, it is also valuable for preserving, seasoning, and purifying food, and for fertilizing.  Its importance is reflected in its use in various sacrifices (Leviticus 2:13) and as a means of sealing covenants (Numbers 18:19).  Although the primary value of salt referred to here is its taste, all its other properties are in the background of our understanding of salt as a metaphor.

But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Pure salt actually cannot lose its flavor, but in Jesus’ day, salt contained significant amounts of chemical impurities.  It was commonly put in a bag and lowered into soup or broth, and as the pure salt was used up, the contents of the bag lost its flavor, and only the dregs remained.

In a sense, salt loses its separate identity when it salts something else — its value resides in the way it acts on another substance.  When it loses its taste, it can no longer act on anything.  When we apply this metaphor to the disciples, their worth as disciples is gauged according to the influence they have on others.

You are the light of the world.

Light imagery is usually applied to God, and Jesus elsewhere referred to himself as “the light of the world” (John 9:5).  This is an eschatological title, so in addition to the meaning of the metaphor itself, it also marks the disciples as the fulfillment of that particular eschatological expectation.

A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.

Two images are used to illustrate the metaphor of light: a city on a mountain and a lamp on a stand in a house.

Building a city on a hill or mountain enabled the inhabitants to see enemies at a distance and more easily defend themselves.

The lamp imagery presupposes a single clay oil lamp that was commonly used in the one-room house of the Palestinian peasant. Light was a precious resource to be maximized for the benefit of all — the flame is uncovered and held high so its rays light up an entire home.

Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

The light metaphor is further explained: true disciples are the light that shines forth in the darkness of ignorance or faithlessness.  They enlighten others not by words but by their manner of living.  It’s this manner of living that declares to the world that the reign of God has indeed been established in their midst and that the age of fulfillment has dawned.

Connections and Themes

Agents of God’s Grace.  We can serve others in various ways only because we have been saved by God’s grace, and now we are agents of that grace in the lives of others.  The Gospel tells us that others will “see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father,” and Paul acknowledges that his message was “a demonstration of of Spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

Take action!  The Gospel tells us what to do (e.g., live for our light to shine), Isaiah tells how to do it (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.), and Paul provides encouragement.  We may wonder how we, who are not important people, can accomplish all these things. This is when Jesus’ metaphors are most powerful: in darkness, even a small match is illuminating; even a few grains of salt have flavor; even a small one-room house provides refuge from the elements.  Paul carried out his mission “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” but he knew the power of God was at work through him and he persevered.

We often do not appreciate the significance of doing God’s work through ordinary means: either we want to do something grandiose for God, or we ignore the possibilities for good that common things can provide.

Strength through weakness.  Again and again the Bible makes reference to God working through what the world considers weakness.  Last week, Paul told us that “God those the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.”

Extraordinary things are accomplished through ordinary people.  Jesus was born in a stable and grew up as the son of a carpenter; some of the apostles were fishermen; Paul was a tent-maker.  We ourselves are everyday people: store clerks, teachers, bus drivers, doctors, lawyers, engineers.  If we allow ourselves to rely on God and not merely our own abilities, the Spirit and power of God will work wonders through us.

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