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6, Yr A, 13.02.11
Deut 30.15-20: choose life
Ps 119.1-8: acrostic (aleph)- longest psalm; read Christ for Law
1 Cor 3.1-9: God gave the increase
Mt 5.21-37: Let your yes be yes (Torah requires an oath) (1456)
The Fourth Sunday before Lent
Lord of the hosts of heaven, our salvation and our strength, without you we are lost:
guard us from all that harms or hurts and raise us when we fall; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us look at today’s readings to see what relevance they may have for us in our journey with Christ.
Our reading from Deuteronomy sets out two paths: a way of life and blessings and a way of death and curses, with the invitation to choose life – what we might call a combination of the carrot and the stick. This demand to make a clear choice was highly appropriate in a period when Israel ’s prophetic leaders were still striving to bring the people to an uncompromising worship and service of Yahweh. Perhaps with the many enticing alternatives on offer today for our attention and allegiance such a clear note might not go amiss. I think we can detect a similar view in our Collect, the prayer for today when it speaks of guarding us from all that harms or hurts us.
Now let’s look at today’s psalm.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the book, and it is an acrostic with 22
sections, each one based on one letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In
each section every line in the Hebrew is headed by the same letter of the
alphabet, aleph, beth, gimel. daleth, and so on.
This morning we have had the first section, so all the lines begin with
the letter aleph. The entire psalm
is a meditation on what we call the Law, which is an unfortunate term for what
the Jews call the Torah, that is, the five books of Moses.
The term Torah was translated by the Greek term nomos and then
later by the Latin word lex, both of which mean ‘law’.
What is unfortunate about the term ‘law’ is that for us it tends to
have negative overtones of being
restrictive and limiting, whereas the Hebrew term Torah means rather the way in
which to go, guidance.
Now, we have a guide, Jesus, who embodies God’s love; so, as disciples
of Jesus I would suggest that when we use such psalms as 119 we take all the
precepts and commandments as being concerned with the love that is the very
being of Jesus and of his Father. This
way, instead of tending to feel legalistic and rule-bound, this psalm can be a
means of leading us into a deeper sense of God’s love as embodied in Jesus.
With regard to our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians
it is worth reminding ourselves that the church at Corinth was being upset by
factions, with some claiming to have special relationships with, for example,
Paul or Apollos, and others claiming to have special knowledge.
So Paul is arguing for unity, for equality of members, and that they all
have the knowledge that really matters. Paul
builds up to spelling out this central knowledge at the very middle of the
letter in chapter 8 when he says ‘There is one God, the Father. From whom are
all things and we unto him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all
things and we through him, but this knowledge is not in everyone’ (8.6).
God our Father is our source and goal, and Jesus is his agent and we come
to the Father through him. This, in
short, is the basis of our life in Christ.
Our gospel reading is one of our series from the Sermon on the Mount in
which Jesus calls us to go beyond all rule-keeping by entering into deeper
dependence upon God and his love.
Matthew has very carefully given the Sermon a Pentecost setting, the
feast that had come to celebrate the giving of the Torah on
Matthew has begun his gospel with the words from Genesis chapter 5,
‘The Book of the generations of Adam’. Instead
Matthew has ‘The Book of the generations of Jesus’, that is, he is the true
Adam, the God-intended human being, who is then called the Christ, the Son of
David, and the Son of Abraham. Later Matthew has Jesus echo the prophet Micah
when he says that the deep things of the law are justice, mercy and faith.
So, beginning with the Beatitudes, Matthew then structures Jesus’
teaching in the Sermon in terms of the faith of Abraham, followed by the wise
mercy and righteousness traditionally ascribed to David, and finally what we may
call the reconciling power of the Christ that brings true justice.
Today’s section starts with Christ-like reconciliation and then moves
on to the merciful righteousness of David. It is in this second part that we
have heard Jesus talking about what we may call ‘voidable oaths’, that is,
oaths which some rabbis said could be set aside. For
example, a rich man might in the heat of the moment declare his wealth to be corban,
meaning ‘devoted’, which would mean that at his death it would pass to the
temple. Later he might regret having
done so, and that is why the rabbis discussed how serious must an oath be before
it could not be set aside. In
each case Jesus relates the basis of each oath, whether it be heaven or earth or
the temple, directly to God, so, he says, in effect, that whatever one might
swear by belongs to God, and therefore cannot be voided.
Then he undercuts the whole argument by saying there should be no oaths,
but only a simple yes or no. And
this, incidentally, sets aside a clear passage of the Torah which requires an
oath. All through the sermon
Jesus is calling for our total dependence upon God’s love as the only way that
the call of the Sermon can be fulfilled in us.
The back of last Sunday’s pew sheet said that today is the Sixth Sunday
after Epiphany, but today’s sheet says it is the Fourth Sunday before Lent.
When Common Worship was first devised, this was indeed to be the Sixth
Sunday after Epiphany. But since
then an alternative set of Collects has been written.
We have been using these collects for several years, and when they wrote
these the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany disappeared and the Fourth Sunday before
Lent took its place.
So, like it or not, we are being warned that Lent is approaching.
And Lent is a time when we traditionally tighten up our discipline.
Discipline can be either liberating or stultifying.
Much of our discipline is habitual. And
these habits often form part of our sense of identity.
A striking example in the
Sometimes our habitual way of doing things can be at cross purposes with
the way that others do things. I
once began to teach our grandson James how to tie the laces on his shoes, doing
it my habitual way, placing the right lace over the left one when starting.
But I had to stop when I found that our son Tom was teaching him the
opposite way to make a bow by crossing the left lace over the right one.
Sometimes we may have annoying little habits. When
I was a young lad I had a friend named Fred Herza.
Fred had the habit of twisting his forelock like this.
Finally, his mother was so fed up with this that one summer she had his
head shaved in the hopes of breaking his habit.
But more seriously, our habits may prevent us from looking anew and more
radically at how we live, even how we live out the gospel.
Today just for variety, I have donned the full eucharistic vestments, and
it is worth noting that basically the chasuble and the stole are simply
carry-overs from the street dress of what we may call the middle class in the
Therefore, as we approach Lent, I would suggest that we all take time to
look at ourselves and our habits to see if there are any areas that we might
change in order to deepen our response to the radical call of Deuteronomy, the
devotion of the psalm, Paul’s call to unity in Christ, and our Lord’s
invitation in the Sermon on the Mount.