16 February 2020; Fifth Sunday after Epiphany; Epiphany 5A (RCL); Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20.
We’re reading in course from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. We missed the beatitudes last week, because the Feast of the Presentation preempted the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. And this week, the passage we hear opens with Jesus saying about salt, and ends with him saying that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a rather serious departure from the way Mark treats the Pharisees.
I believe it forces us to rethink what we mean by righteousness. One of the problems of the modern world is that we have bifurcated religion and ‘politics’ if I can call it that, viz., the art of living together. I think we can begin to see that bifurcation even in the passage from Isaiah.
The prophet is writing after the return from Exile, expecting God’s restoration of Jerusalem. Chapter 55 shows a magnificent feast laid out ready for the people’s enjoyment, but the wild animals come to devour the meal, because the sentinels are not doing their job. This chapter commissions a new sentinel, who will ‘shout out.’
The people have been fasting, hoping to win God’s favor to speed up the restoration of Jerusalem (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, for a record of this same period from a different perspective). The prophet calls out their fasting as simply a mechanical observance without any accompanying repentance. Despite their fast, they continue in old habits, so the prophet announces the kind of fast God desires. Breaking the yoke of oppression, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry — these are righteousness. If the people do these things, they will rebuild Jerusalem, and rebuild it in such a way as it will be habitable for all. Righteousness, then, in the view of the prophet has more to do with habitable streets than religious observance.
So, after the beatitudes, Jesus says to his hearers, “You are the salt of the earth.” Living in such a way that the poor are honored, the hungry and thirsty are honored, the grieving are honored makes the world a tastier place. Righteousness, then, makes streets habitable and the world a tasty place.
So that last instruction means that we will have to live in such a way to extend that righteousness beyond the usual boundaries we ascribe to it. It is not about winning God’s favor ourselves, or for a particular people, but for making the whole world a tasty place.