A city on a hill

9 February 2014
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 5A (RCL)
Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20

I’m not a fan of dramatic liturgical reading. I prefer a moderate intonation; enough to keep my interest, but not to interpret the passage for me. However, at the Church I attended in Boston, there was an African-American woman, a school teacher, who served as a lector. Whenever she was given a reading from the prophets, she would read dramatically, voice rising and falling in beautiful cadence. One could just imagine the prophet’s thundering speech as she read. This passage from Isaiah begs for such a reading.

The situation is the return from Exile. The people are discouraged that the glory of Zion is nothing like its former glory, and the restoration has bogged down. The prophet is painfully conscious of the sin of the people, and calls to repentance. The prophet’s call is not to a formal repentance, but to a true change in the life of the community. The message is timeless: if you remove the yoke of oppression, then your light will shine forth; then will you be called the repairer of the breach and the restorer of streets to live in. One need not look far to find streets in need of restoration. A formal, religious repentance won’t do, wringing our hands over the ideological issues which separate us. Instead, we need to cover the naked, invite the poor into our homes, feed the hungry, and remove the various yokes of oppression. This never seems like very good politics, but it is as true today as it was then, that this is the only thing that will repair the breach.

Matthew seems to be aware of this passage (or at least of the imagery of light and a restored city) in the passage we hear from the Sermon on the Mount. We are the light of the world, and a city set on a hill, but unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees (an unfair characterization of them), we will not see the kingdom. Righteousness, understood as personal morality, won’t restore the city, or shine a light to the world. Instead, the law, understood as a rule of life for the community, as encoding proper and just modes of relationship, will shine before the world.

Matthew also includes the metaphor of salt. Salt makes things tasty. Every sacrifice offered included salt, even sacrifices of grain and flour included salt. Our actions in the world make the world tasty, and presentable to God. Often, we despair of being able to make systemic changes, but Jesus tells us that we are salt: a little goes a long way. By making just small changes, we can make the world a lot more liveable.

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