Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
February 5, 2017
For centuries, we have guided our way by a compass. But the compass does not guarantee that you will always find your way. I can tell you this from personal experience. During my winter survival school in the Air Force, in the hills between Washington state and Idaho, I learned the hard way. We were trekking in over two feet of snow, given a map and a lensatic compass, also known as a military compass, to find our way from the base camp to the next day’s camp site. As we set out we looked at the map, got our bearings from the surrounding terrain and with the compass determined the direction we should go. Unfortunately, we made a 10-degree error. Instead of going around the mountain we trekked over the top. There were a couple out of shape individuals that became so exhausted that two of us had to carry their backpack along with our own. We made it mistakenly to the second day’s campsite. Then to add insult to injury they made us walk back along the road to the correct destination.
In Isaiah, the people are trying to find their way to God, but by their own methods. This week’s Old Testament text from Isaiah 58 features an insightful conversation between God and Israel through the prophet Isaiah on the subject of righteousness. They did not mean to be hypocrites—quite the reverse; they were bent on “doing righteousness.” They were not forsaking God’s ordinance but felt they were following his compass or direction. The problem is that they had no sense of genuine religion. They made it a matter of outward observance, and did not understand that righteousness is in the devotion of the heart.
They thought God should take great notice of them, and he should reward them for their services. Hypocrites perform the external services of religion and promise themselves that God will accept them. They actually do good, and they should not be denied praise of it, but be allowed to do their best. They do have a form of godliness. They appear in the eyes of the world as doing their duty. Israel as a nation did righteousness and observed the ordinances of their God. Everyone observed their good deeds, and they themselves were proud of their service. They boasted of the work-righteous themselves. Then they held up their fasting before the eyes of God, and complained that he took no notice of it, and they weren’t seeing the results they had hoped for. And so, they asked God, “We are fasting, but do you not see, do you not notice?”
The Lord wants a fast of a life devoted to justice and breaking loose the bonds of injustice and oppression everywhere––to feeding the hungry, to clothing the naked, to housing the homeless, to sharing what we have with our neighbors. In our Christian churches the prophet would say that the true test of worship isn’t the quality of the organ or the guitar, or even the sermon of the preacher. The true test of worship and the way for a congregation is to be heard by the Lord is to move beyond charity and toward justice. Then we can declare with Isaiah, “You shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”
With that background, we see parallels in Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount reminds us, whether we want to be reminded or not, that faith in Jesus requires following Jesus on a path. Not the path we would choose, but the path that he has chosen for us. Jesus did not think much of the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. However, the Pharisees and Scribes had good intentions and wanted to protect the people from getting close to breaking the law. They put fences around the law to keep people from getting close to a fault. Jesus does not challenge their scrupulous attention to the law; but he simply observes that now, with the coming of a new age, more is required to be in fellowship with God and in conforming to his will. People must follow Jesus in discipleship, which for the most part these Jewish leaders refuse to do.
Jesus told the Pharisees, “You weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” In order to protect the people, the Pharisees taught you couldn’t carry “a burden” on the Sabbath, and they defined a burden as whatever you could carry on your little finger. Jesus made a play on words by saying, “You will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” And so, they defined 39 types of prohibited work to avoid breaking the Sabbath. Here are some of their fence laws:
You could not spit on the Sabbath because it would disturb the dust on the ground and you would become guilty of plowing.
You could not swat a fly on the Sabbath because you would become guilty of hunting.
A woman could not look at her reflection because she might see a gray hair and pluck it out, which would be doing work.
They created loopholes to get around some laws.
If your house was burning down on a Sabbath, you could not carry clothes out of it. However, you were permitted to put on several layers of clothes as the house was burning, and you could leave without breaking their law because you were wearing them instead of carrying them!
On the Sabbath day, you could not travel more than 3/5 mile from your house. However, you could leave food 3/5 mile from your home on the night before, which would make it permissible to travel twice the distance without breaking the law.
Keeping these man-made fence laws, actually became more important to them than keeping God’s Word.
This reminds me of a story that I heard when I was growing up. It is such an old story that you may have heard it. There was an elderly lady that needed a driver to drive her to her home in the mountains along the scenic drive. She interviewed three men. The first tried to impress her with his bravery. He said, “I can get so close to the edge of the road that you can see the creek at the bottom of the canyon.” The next said, “I am a reasonable driver and will stay close to the center of the road, but you will still be able to see most of the beautiful view.” The third was apologetic and said, “I know you want to take full advantage of the wonderful view, but I would rather stay as far away from the cliff as I can, so there is no chance of an accident.” The lady picked the third driver and said, that she agreed that she would rather get up the mountain safely, and relax to peacefully enjoy the view when she gets to the top.
When Jesus says, You, are the salt of the earth,” he knows the ways his followers will be tempted to choose the most insipid path of least resistance. And so, he reminds us starkly that God’s people are called to season and preserve the world and to shine brightly the light of Christ that has been given to us, so that the world may see God’s glory revealed in Jesus. The point is that it would be bizarre and unnatural for salt to lose its saltiness. If other foodstuffs become insipid, they can be salted into palatability, but this won’t work for the salt itself! This sense of unnaturalness is then reinforced with images of uselessness, rejection, and humiliation.
In Matthew, Jesus believed that those who had the reputation of being especially careful about the details of the Law were totally failing to take it seriously enough. Believers who fail to arrest corruption become worthless as agents of change and redemption. Christianity may make its peace with the world and avoid persecution, but it is thereby rendered impotent to fulfill its divinely ordained role. It will consequently in the end, be rejected even by those with whom it has sought compromise.
The moral laws are based on God’s holy nature, and are holy, just, and unchanging. Their purpose is to promote the welfare of those who obey. The value of the laws is considered obvious by reason and common sense. The moral law covers regulations on justice, respect, and sexual conduct, and includes the Ten Commandments. Moral law does not point people to Christ; it merely illuminates the fallen state of all mankind. Some believe that Jesus’ assertion that the law will remain in effect until the earth passes away means that believers are still bound to it. Others, however, understand that Jesus fulfilled this requirement, and that we are instead under the law of Christ, which tells us to “love God and love others.” Many of the moral laws in the Old Testament give excellent examples of how to love God and love others. Clearly, freedom from the law is not license to sin – we are not specifically bound, but definitely guided by the Old Testament moral law.1
To build a city on a hill is a place of assertiveness. It expresses a certain confidence and a claim to importance, which flags a desire on the part of the inhabitants to play a wider role in human affairs. People who want to live a quiet and secluded life build their cities tucked out of sight in the hope that they won’t be noticed. This has been verified by research done by Gallup on people from 145 countries. Adherents of all the major world religions who attended religious services in the past week have higher rates of generosity such as donating money, volunteering, and helping a stranger than those who did not attend services— the non-attenders. Even for people who were nonreligious, those who said they attended religious services in the past week exhibited more generous behaviors.2
The study revealed that 40% of Americans attending worship service, volunteer regularly to help the poor and elderly as opposed to 15% of Americans who never attend services.3 Moreover, religious individuals are more likely than non-religious individuals to volunteer for school and youth programs (36% vs. 15%), a neighborhood or civic group (26% vs. 13%), and for health care (21% vs. 13%).4
Lighting a lamp in order to hide it under the peck measure is as senseless as thinking that a city built on a hill can be kept from the sight of those who pass by. Everything is here viewed in a mission perspective. The outcome is that people are impressed by what God is currently doing. There is a correspondence between action and consequence, but the thrust is quite different. We are not called to control secular power structures; neither are we promised that we can Christianize the legislation and values of the world. But we must remain active preservative agents, indeed irritants, in calling the world to heed God’s standards.
What if Jesus’ intention was for us as disciples to imagine and live into a righteousness that makes the kingdom of heaven possible? Jesus’ call is to remain salty, not to dilute what God’s kingdom is already doing among you, with “fillers” from the kingdoms of this world. Bigger is not better. More volume does not equate to better value. Be real. Be authentic — authentic to the one whose kingdom makes us salty! Being salt and light in God’s kingdom impels such radical sharing, such abundantly blessed living, but only if we neither dilute the salt nor hide the light.
1 https://www.gotquestions.org/ceremonial-law.html, observed 1/19/2017
2 Stark, Rodney; Smith, Buster G. (September 4, 2009). “Religious Attendance Relates to Generosity Worldwide”. Gallup.
3 “Religious citizens more involved — and more scarce?”. USA Today.
4 Campbell, David; Putnam, Robert (2010-11-14). “Religious people are ‘better neighbors'”. USA Today. Retrieved 2007-10-18.