Old Testament: Isaiah (58:1-12)
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
The Response: Psalm 112
Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!
2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3 Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.
4 Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and
full of compassion.
5 It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.
6 For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.
7 They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right; they put their trust in the Lord.
8 Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies
9 They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.
10 The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.
The Epistle: 1 Corinthians (2:1-12)
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
The Gospel: Matthew (5:13-20)
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Last Sunday, our gospel reading presented us with the first twelve verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. They are some of the best-known and best-loved lines in all of scripture. They can serve as the basis for a genuinely faithful Christian life; but they also can be taken, and all too often have been taken, as a justification for a self-centered, individualistic approach to faith: one that lets us off easy, one that is focused on ourselves and is detached from our obligations toward others and from our God-given role in and for the rest of the world.
This morning’s continuation of the Sermon on the Mount begins to correct that distortion. As I mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon, the reading that we just heard includes Jesus’ clarification (Mt. 5:17): “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus picks up and intensifies and deepens the teaching of the prophets who went before him, including the unknown author of today’s first reading.
Writing to a people who claimed to be faithful to Israel’s traditional religion, the prophet confronted them with the fact that their faith was, as one commentator (Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, p. 204) put it, merely “faith in the subjunctive mood.” They claimed allegiance to God and sought God’s help “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God” (Is 58:2): an assertion that was contrary to the evidence.
As opposed to their merely formal, detached pseudo-religion, the author of this part of the book of Isaiah insisted that they live a life that was in fact the life to which God had called them: to free those who were being held unjustly, to break through those situations and systems that hold people back from living a fully human life, to feed the hungry, to provide for those without adequate clothing, to shelter the homeless, and to care for the needy and the afflicted. Then, he tells them – then and only then — “your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (Is 58:10).
More than 500 years later, Jesus was still confronting people’s attempts to make faith into something private, something that had little, if anything, to do with their obligations to other people. Shortly before his death, he would cite the list of works described in the Isaiah reading and would present them as the criteria that God would use in the Last Judgment to decide the fate of all people: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” and so on (Mt 25:31-46). But here, toward the beginning of his ministry, Jesus uses that same author’s image of the faithful whose light would shine through their actions for all the world to see; as Jesus insisted (Mt 5:16), “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” It is not in our pious words but in our actions that we let our light shine to the glory of God.
That is true of us as individuals. It is true of us as a church. But it is also true of us as a community and as a nation. The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven as Jesus proclaimed it, is not just something that affects individual’s inner piety and religious feelings. The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven as Jesus proclaimed it, is a reality that seeks to transform the entire world.
And the characteristics of the kingdom, the life-giving works to which the book of Isaiah and Jesus call us, are the signs, not only of truly great individuals, but also of truly great communities and of truly great nations and of truly great civilizations. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whom I quoted last Sunday, has put it this way (Not in God’s Name, page 236): “Civilisations are judged not by power but by their concern for the powerless; not by wealth but by how they treat the poor; not when they seek to become invulnerable but when they care for the vulnerable.” That is an approach to greatness that comes from deep within the biblical tradition. It is an approach to greatness that was proclaimed by the author of today’s first reading, and it is an approach to greatness that was proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth. That approach to greatness is not one that many people want to hear; but it is the one that lies at the very heart of a biblical faith.
Many years ago, when I was preparing for ordination, there was a priest at the seminary who served as a special mentor to me. One day, he told me about some of his experiences as a young priest. Part of his first assignment was to serve at Bellarmine Chapel at Xavier University in Cincinnati. It was the late 1960s: a contentious time in the church and in society in general, especially when it came to subjects such as the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam.
One Sunday, he preached in support of the use of non-violent, civil disobedience to bring our society to abolish some of the racist laws that were then in effect. A group of people, not wanting to hear that message, got up and walked out of Mass.
Shaken by what had happened and still unsure of himself, he went to talk with the much older pastor under whom he served. That senior priest listened patiently and then advised him: “Young man, I want to tell you something that is critical for your ministry. People will walk out on you for one of two reasons: either because you are not preaching the word of God, or because you are. The most important thing for you is to be certain which one it is.”
If we dare to preach the word of God in our lives, to proclaim the values of the kingdom of God, to embody them ourselves, and to struggle to get our communities, our nation and our society to adopt and live by them, there are bound to be many people who will be offended, who simply won’t want to hear it, and who may well walk out on us. It was true at the time of the author of our first reading. It was true at the time of Jesus. It continues to be true today.
But whether people want to hear it or not, the word of God is still the word of God. And by living that word and proclaiming that word, we will be faithful to God’s call, extended to us in Jesus, to be the salt of the earth, to be the light of the world.