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Wrestling with the Word, episode 103: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A (January 30, 2011) January 19, 2011

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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Epiphany season challenges us to discern the meaning of symbols in order to grasp the messages about the identity of Jesus. Removed by almost two thousand years, the biblical symbols that convey this powerful news are almost exclusively words. Word symbols relate meaning, however, only in particular contexts. For example, in today’s context the word “justification” commonly refers to the alignment of written text on a page. We can choose to justify to the right or to the left. In the context of the New Testament, however, “justification” refers to the act of acquittal in a court case. Interpreting the meaning of the word in a biblical passage requires, therefore, determining the original context of the symbol. The lessons for this Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany feature “the mountain” as an overarching symbol for Jesus’ identity and the word “righteousness” as the justifying action that God performed through Jesus’ identity.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 103: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A.


Psalm 15
Like Psalm 24, this psalm served as an “entrance liturgy” for the Israelite pilgrims who came to the temple of Jerusalem three times each year. To comprehend the liturgical action of these psalms, one does well to read and interpret the two side by side. While Psalm 24 opens with a confession about the Lord’s founding the earth upon the chaos of the sea and the ensuing majesty of the Lord over the whole earth, Psalm 15 begins with the pilgrims’ question (v. 2 of Psalm 24) regarding the qualifications needed for entering the mountaintop space where the holiness of God dwells on earth. In other words, “Who, O Lord, can receive your majestic hospitality?” The pilgrims await the Lord’s answer–perhaps through a priest. Verses 2-5 provide that divine answer in terms of the appropriate torah. Simply put, the requirement is honoring other people. Such respect for others includes walking blamelessly, doing what is right, speaking heartfelt truth, avoiding slander and harm, insult to one’s neighbors, charging interest on loans (usury), and bribes against the innocent. The list is more detailed than that in Psalm 24:4, but in both cases the requirements are not rituals but acts of justice and righteousness to others. Such responsibility is fitting behavior toward a God who loves justice (Ps. 99:4) and who rules the world with justice and righteousness (Ps. 97:2). Acting out in daily life the worship experience from the temple pilgrimage results in the promise of God: “Those who do these things shall never be moved” (v. 5).


Micah 6:1-8
When Israel chose to define her response of faith in God by ritualistic acts, God sued them for breach of contract and defined the good life as one of justice, faithfulness, and humility.

Micah preached in Judah in the second half of the 8th century B.C., during the reigns of “Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah” (1:1).  Micah differed from Isaiah in that he preached the destruction of Jerusalem, whereas Isaiah preached God’s saving intervention of the city from the Assyrian attack.

Key Words
V. 1. “plead you case … hear, you mountains (witnesses) …the lawsuit of YHWH”: The terms indicate clearly that the divine speech of these verses takes the form of a court case in which the Lord is suing Israel. The charges against the people are the content of verses 3-5. Acting as prosecuting attorney, YHWH asks the people to tell what God has done to weary them: “answer me!” God reminds the people of the basic act performed on behalf of the people: the exodus from the land of Egypt (v. 4). YHWH commands the people to recall also the intention of Balak, king of Moab, to stop the people of Israel’s conquest of the land through a curse from Balaam. As the story develops, Balaam blessed the people through the Lord’s intervention (Num. 22–23). Further, YHWH calls the people to remember the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land from the time Joshua established his headquarters at Shittim before crossing the Jordan to the new headquarters in Gilgal on the other side (Josh. 2:1; 4:19). The purpose of these divine actions of v. 5 is “that you may know the saving acts of YHWH.”

Vss. 6-7. “With what shall I come before YHWH?”: The response of an individual (corporate?) is to ask a question similar to that of Psalm 15:1. The worshiper’s assumptions are that a ritual act of sacrifice would enable the person to “please” the Lord.

V. 8. “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”: What pleases the Lord is not an act of ritual but, like the response from the priest in Psalm 15, to live one’s life performing justice and acts of mercy in humility before God.


1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Against all who claim to be wise, powerful, and noble, God chose a new community consisting of the foolish, the weak, and the lowly in order to destroy pretensions to self-importance and to lead to proper boasting in the Lord.

The Christian community is
not wise
not powerful
not of noble birth
God chose
the foolish to shame the wise
the weak to shame the strong
the lowly to bring to nothing what is
So that no one might boast before God.
Christ Jesus is
our wisdom
our righteousness
So that we might boast in the Lord.

The people of Corinth were among the sophisticated of the ancient world, and they knew it.  It was a cosmopolitan city where Jew and Gentile mixed.  Prior to our verses, Paul indicates that a report from Chloe informed him that divisions have arisen in the congregation, and much of the letter addresses the different positions and questions that resulted from those divergent parties. Here Paul begins to develop his argument about the startling nature of the gospel, from which he will address the various questions raised in the congregation. His final sentence states his mission: “to preach the gospel, not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:17). For a fuller discussion of the first part of this passage, see and listen to Episode 12.

Key Words
V. 18. ho logos gar ho tou staurou tois men apollumenois mōria estin = “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing”: The purpose of the wisdom movement in the ancient world was to understand the ordering of the universe and to participate in that ordering as the way to live. Foolishness or folly led to disorder, failure, and death, and so the future fortunes of the wise and the fool are quite opposite. Those who are perishing are those who refuse to hear the word of the cross and will not know the life promised for those of faith. The two groups are paired also at 2 Cor. 2:15, while at 2 Cor. 4:3 the perishing stand alone veiled from the gospel. The contrast in our verse is tois de sōzomenois hēmin dynamis theou estin = “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” That the word/gospel possesses God’s “power” to save those who have faith, see Rom. 1:16. The actor for salvation is, therefore, God.

V. 19. “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’”: The quotation of Isa. 29:14 recalls the promise of God to destroy the wisdom that purports to have knowledge of and access to God. The quote demonstrates also that Paul is not the first to challenge the wisdom tradition and those who claim to know it all. See also the premise of the Book of Job and the preaching of Jeremiah 8:8-9. Having put that meaning of the symbol “wisdom” in its place, Paul redefines the word and gives new meaning to the symbol: “Christ crucified … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vss. 23-24).

V. 21. eudokēsen ho theos = “it pleased God”: What pleases God in the NT is essentially what God gives. In Col. 1:19 “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the Son” and thereby to reconcile all things to Godself. Paul writes in Gal. 1:16 that God “was pleased to reveal the Son” to him so that he might preach among the Gentiles. And at Luke 12:32, Jesus taught that “it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom….”

V. 22. “For Jews demand signs (sēmeia) and Greeks seek wisdom (sophian)”: For the desire for signs see Numbers 14:11-25 where God says that the people of Israel received many signs but rejected God and God’s deliverance nevertheless. The people do not trust the Lord to keep the promises. In the Gospel stories, the Pharisees stand out as those who demand signs from Jesus “to test him” (Matt. 16:1-4; 12:38-39; Mark 8:11-13). At Luke 11:29. Jesus regards as “evil” this requiring of signs. As for the wisdom sought by the Greeks, wisdom was a human attempt to discover the world of the gods and of humans through philosophies of various kinds.

V. 23. hēmeis de kēryssomen Christon estaurōmenon = “but we preach Christ crucified”: The content of the gospel that Paul preaches is completely contrary to signs and wisdom and, therefore, in the minds and eyes of the world, it is a stumbling block and folly. See Rom. 1:17-17 for “power of God” to save.

V. 27. hina kataischynē = “so that he might shame”: God does not put to shame those who are faithful; cf. Rom. 5:5; 9:33; 10:11; 1 Pet. 2:6; 3:16.

V. 30. en Christō ’Iēsou, hos egenēthē sophia hēmin apo theou, dikaiosynē te kai hagiosmos kai apolytrōsis = “in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”: Along with redefining wisdom, Paul reinterprets the symbol “righteousness” from its customary meaning of our obedience and behavior to mean God’s action of acquitting us. “Righteousness” is the action of God that brings us into fellowship with God—a meaning already attested in the OT.

V. 31. ho kauchōmenos en kyriō kauchasthō = “let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”: The quotation from Jer. 9:22-23 where the classes of people who are not to boast are the wise, the strong, and the rich.


Matthew 5:1-12
To the poor of the land Jesus, speaking not with the voice of Moses but with the authority of God, promises the blessings of the future to be experienced in the present.

After his baptism by John and the temptation in the wilderness by the devil, Jesus began preaching in Galilee the nearness of the Reign of God.  Immediately thereafter in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus called as disciples Peter and Andrew and James and John.  His preaching, teaching and healing caused the word to spread throughout the land, causing crowds to follow him.

Parallel Passages:  Isaiah 61:1-2; Psalm 37; Luke 6:20-23.

Key Words
Vss. 1-11. makarioi = blessed”: In the OT, blessings from God are often contrasted with curses as rewards or punishments respectively for keeping the torah of YHWH (above all see Deut. 27—28).

V. 1.  anebē eis to oros = “he went up onto the mountain”:  The mountain is unnamed and impossible to locate. The definite article, however, seems to point to some known elevation– if not topographical, then theological or traditional. The terms “the mountain” also occur at Mark 3:13//Luke 6:12 as the location for appointing the 12 apostles. The divine functions of teaching (here) and appointing or commissioning recall the functions of Mount Sinai/Horeb and Mount Sinai in the OT (Exod. 3:1-12; 20; 24—31; Psalm 2, etc.). While Mark and Luke require Jesus’ invitation to ascend the mountain (like the OT tradition), Matthew allows “the mountain” to go public here and at 15:29-31. As for commissioning the Twelve, Matthew saves that action for the end of his Gospel (28:16-20).

V. 3.  hoi ptōchoi tō pneumati = “the poor in spirit”:  Luke 6:20 reads simply “the poor” (see Isa. 61:1). The Hebrew word translated “poor” bears the meaning of afflicted or oppressed.

V. 4.  hoi penthountes … paraklēthēsontai = “the mourners … will be comforted”:  Recall the promise of the coming Day of the Lord at Isa. 61:2. Note in Third Isaiah the role of YHWH in comforting mourners (57:18; 61:3; 66:13).

V. 5.  hoi praeis … klēronomēsousin tēn gēn = “the meek … shall inherit the earth”:  See the repeated use of this blessing at Ps. 37:9 (those who wait for YHWH), 11 (meek), 22 (the blessed), 29 (the righteous), 34 (those who wait for YHWH). Psalm 37 is a collection of teachings that point to the blessings of YHWH’s saving intervention into earthly life, encouraging the people to trust that YHWH will deliver on those promises. (See Episode 93 for a discussion of Psalm 37:1-9.)

Vv. 6, 10.  dikaiosynē = “righteousness”:  See Isa. 61:3:  “that they may be called the oaks of righteousness.” The prophetic expression sets this new identity as the goal of God’s interventions announced in Isa. 61: 1-2. Even more closely related to our passage, however, is the combination of God’s making the people “righteous” and promising they will inherit the land/earth appears a few verses earlier at Isa. 60:21: “Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land/earth forever.”

V. 9.  hoi eirēnopoioi hoti autoi huioi theou klēthēsontai = “the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”:  See Col. 1:20, where Christ is said to “reconcile to himself all things, … making peace by the blood of the cross.” The divine name-calling that changes the lives of people is prominent in the preaching of Third Isaiah (see Isa. 60:18; 61:6; 62:4, 12).

V. 12. chairete kai agalliasthe, hoti ho misthos hymōn polys en tois ouranois = Rejoice and be glad, because your reward is great in heaven”: Luke’s version makes the eschatological point even clearer: charete en ekeinē tē hēmera = “rejoice on that day” (6:23).