Proper 1: Isaiah 58.1-9a [9b-12]; Psalm 112.1-9 [or Psalm 112]; 1 Corinthians 2.1-12 [13–end]; Matthew 5.13-20
O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
SOME of Shakespeare’s memorably beautiful lines emerge from unlikely characters. Bottom the Weaver comes to himself, after his temporary transformation into an ass and his meeting with Titania and her fairy attendants, convinced that he has woken from an extraordinary dream.
”Methought I was — there is no man can tell what. . . The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, scene 1).
There is a little mischief in putting 1 Corinthians 2.9 into the mouth of an uneducated rustic, but along with that is a deeper truth. The whole point of Paul’s explanation of his approach to proclaiming the gospel in this part of his first letter to the Corinthian church is that the message of Christ destabilises all previous assumptions about sophistication, education, and social position.
He could have held his own in debate with local philosophers, he implies (1 Corinthians 2.1-4); but he chose to do something much riskier. So he talked to those who had a particular notion of wisdom about matters that defied logical working-out, about “Jesus Christ, and him crucified”; and he addressed them in the power of the Spirit rather than by well-ordered argument (1 Corinthians 2.2, 4).
There is a further stage to this strategy. It involves speaking to “the mature” with the wisdom of a world that has not yet come into being, and is beyond the experience of the human eye or ear, and beyond the reach of the human imagination (1 Corinthians 2.9). His challenge is to prepare his audience to be the mature community that is able to receive this teaching.
This is where the difficulty arises; for the faction-ridden Christians in Corinth are demonstrating a great deal of immaturity, and consequently have to be treated as babies, until such time as they grow up spiritually (1 Corinthians 3).
Maturity, and the recognition of human responsibility as part of the privilege of relationship with God, are central concerns both for Isaiah and for the writer of Matthew’s Gospel. Isaiah speaks to people who are going through the motions of authentic religious devotion. They are expert in the outward forms: they keep the prescribed fasts, and adopt suitable gestures of humility.
The prophet, however, warns them that this by itself amounts to nothing. The ritual expression of faithful obedience to God is given life and value when it is partnered with a genuine desire to see a just community: where poverty is relieved, and oppression and exploitation are reversed.
The fast that God wants is not ostentatious personal abstinence, but the positive gestures of “sharing bread with the hungry”, covering the naked, and fulfilling one’s duty to one’s own family (Isaiah 58.6-7, 9-10). Self-denial is better expressed in refraining from “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” (Isaiah 58.9).
If piety is reimagined in this way, there will be universal benefit, attainable in the lifetimes of the people who pay attention to the warning. Images of light, fertility, and strength support the promise of a “restored community”, originating in attention to “the neighbour in public ways from which arises a public future” (Walter Brueggeman, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998; Isaiah 58.10-12).
Jesus would have been well aware of Isaiah’s call to God’s people to be “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42.6, 49.6) in making his own appeal to his disciples and the larger crowd who had gathered to hear the teachings that we know collectively as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.1-7.29).
He works in the present and future tenses, acclaiming them as already “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5.13-14), but reminding them also that these things are only as good as the way in which they are stored and used. The destiny awaiting those whom God calls into a covenantal relationship is a special calling that is fulfilled when acted out in service and witness to the world (Matthew 5.16).
Jesus does not wish to be misunderstood. He is not encouraging the crowds to forget the law and the prophets as part of a revolutionary programme. On the contrary, he insists that they have to be better at keeping the law and heeding the words of prophecy than the traditional upholders of these institutions, the Scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5.20).
What is new is the realisation that there is a way to live by the law which brings the law itself to life.