Lectionary Reflections for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 9, 2014
Isaiah 58: 1-9a
I Corinthians 2:1-16
Today’s scripture passages discuss the nature of personal and communal spirituality. The Hebraic and early Christian traditions, from which our scriptures emerged, see the individual and community as profoundly interdependent. Communities as well as individuals are challenged to embody a holistic spirituality that embraces corporate justice seeking, communal worship, and personal acts of piety and generosity. While Isaiah’s listeners are individuals, the prophet is speaking to a spiritually wayward community, calling it to care for its most vulnerable members. Jesus’ affirmation that we are light and salt, enlightening and flavoring the world, is a message to the early Christian community corporately as well as to each member of the community. Paul invites the Corinthians to see healthy relatedness, not abstract doctrine or individualistic well-being as essential to faith formation.
Isaiah 58 connects worship with ethics and public policy. Sacrifices and songs do not suffice – and may become harmful to us and others – if our community’s actions remain unjust. Hunger and poverty drown out our songs and sermons, leading to a famine in hearing and speaking the word of God. The prophet connects the depth of our spirituality and God’s ability to respond with our corporate and personal actions. Injustice closes off communication with God; justice opens us to the divine call and enables God to answer our prayers and respond to our praises.
The prophet imagines a dialogical relationship between God, the world, and the worshipping community. God is either hindered or encouraged by our ethical lives. God’s own ability to shape the world is influenced by our political and ethical priorities. This is the divine pathos of which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke. God is truly involved in the world; God has a bias toward justice and cares especially for those who suffer oppression, poverty, and injustice.
Isaiah suggests that God’s ability – and desire – to enter into dialogue is dynamic, relational, and contingent on the quality of our embodiment of God’s vision of Shalom. Accordingly, Isaiah counsels us toward a holistic spirituality in which every aspect of our personal and communal lives is interdependent. Life is a call and response and the nature this relationship depends greatly on our attentiveness to God’s vision for our lives and the world.
Psalm 112 connects justice and spirituality, but is inclined toward an acts-consequences understanding of causality which raises serious theological questions. Is there a linear relationship between righteousness and success? Are the righteous always rewarded by material prosperity? Do we always gain materially by our care for the downtrodden? A linear identification of acts-consequences in the material world is not borne out in everyday experience and may lead to a spiritual-ethical quid pro quo in which we expect our moral behavior to lead to divine reward. Job obviously would object to such linear reasoning.
Without separating mind and body, and spiritual and material, this Psalm is best read in terms of the whole person experience of relationship with God. The righteous are not moved by the winds of fate and experience abundance in all the seasons of life precisely because their lives are blessings to the world. They experience a sense of connectedness in which God is always near and they have the spiritual and relational resources to respond to every crisis. They are not guaranteed external success but grace sufficient for every need.
In his letter to the currently wayward Corinthians, Paul makes a bold and seemingly counterfactual affirmation, “We have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16) His description of the cross-shaped faith joins Philippians 2:5-11 as a testimony to a new theological vision of God, power, and wisdom. God’s power is defined by the crucifixion. This need not incline us to center our faith on substitutionary or vicarious atonement theories, although such atonement theories show us something of God’s nature provided we place them alongside the many other atonement theories taught in the early church and available to Christians today. (See Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church)
God’s power is made perfect in relationship, which includes suffering as well as joy. God is present, not absent; sensitive, not aloof; embodied, not ethereal. God saves by being present in the suffering of Christ and ourselves. God’s suffering love becomes a model for Christian relationship: the willingness of members of the community to share each other’s burdens as well as joys and to sacrifice for the well-being of the whole. Self-affirmation embraces relatedness. In so doing, sacrifice and sensitivity become expansive, not oppressive. God’s Spirit works by another value system than the world’s: God places justice and relatedness at the forefront, inviting us to live with and for one another.
Jesus calls the church to season and enlighten the world. You are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth. First of all, the adventurous preacher is called to invite her or his congregation to proclaim, “I am the light of the world” and “We are the light of the world.” Healthy self-affirmation, embracing every one, gives us a sense of joy and inspires us to bring forth the light and life in others. Moreover, congregations and followers of Jesus are called to be flavorful: to season the world; to add zest to life; to bring out the holy flavor of every situation.
Today’s gospel reading concludes with an affirmation of the Hebraic tradition and a call for the Christian community to embody the Law of Israel, not as an external burden, but as a lived reality written on their hearts. Jesus does not oppose Law and Gospel; rather he sees the Law in its essence as living, relational, concrete, and flexible. It is heart law and not-legalistic behavior. In being salt and light, seasoning and enlightening and becoming our full selves, we incarnate the highest values of the Hebraic tradition.
Today, we can proclaim a joyful cross, whose glorious interdependence and witness to God’s nearness enables us to live spacious and generous lives in solidarity with vulnerable persons and giving light and flavor to every situation.