Friday, January 14, 2011

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany Year A

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9,(10); I Corinthians 2:1-12,(13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

The text of the Book of Isaiah turns to a scathing attack on the perversion ("rebellion") of  purported faithfulness with God.  The self-serving, self-aggrandizing religious customs and practices that humankind chooses "will not make your voice heard on high."  The Lord chooses a different spiritual discipline ("fast")-- "to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke" "to share your bread with the hungry...."  "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer...."  The text now adds some additional changes in behavior-- remove "the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil"-- as precursors to a new role for God's people-- "you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in."

The psalmist describes attributes of a 'hero' to family, heritage, community as one who --"shows grace" and backs up words with deeds of justice.

Paul characterizes himself not as someone who offers "lofty words or wisdom" and as a man weak "and in fear and in much trembling," except when it comes to his testimony about "Jesus Christ, and him crucified" as "a demonstration of the Spirit and of the power," so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom, but on the power of God."  He is a witness not to conventional wisdom, but to "God's wisdom...."  He empowers his readers not in the "spirit" of any passing age, but in "the Spirit that searches everything, even the depths of God."  This is "foolishness" to some, but nothing less than "the mind of Christ" to others.

Having just provided a manifesto/precis/revelation of Jesus' teaching (see last Sunday's comments), Matthew's text now addresses those who have been privileged to hear/experience it: "You are the salt of the earth...."  "You are the light of the world."  But if salt looses its "saltiness," it is tossed out.  And, "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to the whole house."  The point is as clear as day: "let your light so shine before others" in your deeds.  Only Matthew then follows with words of Jesus that stress the continuity of his teaching with the Torah and the prophets, which he came "not to abolish, but to fulfill."  His followers are to fulfill all past expectations and then exceed them in practice! 

Isaiah's attack on conventional religion dismisses not only the practices themselves, but the motives of those who use them to create an image of piety.  God chooses one spiritual discipline above all others-- justice, freedom, any and all actions that relieve those in need; that is, any work that makes the streets safer.  The psalmist instructs that the person who is graceful and whose words are fulfilled in actual deeds of justice is an asset to family and community and leaves a worthy heritage.  For all the caricatures of Matthew's gospel as more 'spiritulaized' than the other three, the emphasis in today's excerpt is quite clearly on specific "deeds," specific actions of kindness/charity/justice that are like "salt" or "light."

In the essay, On The Name, in which Jacques Derrida chose to discuss in detail what he did and did not mean by his much misunderstood, central concept-- "deconstruction"--, he includes an articulate, deeply sympathetic interpretation of the writings of St. Augustine, particularly his Confessions.  Derrida writes of Augustine:  "When he asks (himself), when he asks in truth of God and already of his readers why he confesses himself to God when He knows everything, the response makes it appear that what is essential to the avowal or the testimony does not consist in an experience of knowledge.  Its act is not reduced to informing, teaching, making known.  Stranger to knowing, thus to every determination or to every predicative attribution, confession shares [partage] this destiny with the apophatic movement.  Augustine's response is inscribed from the outset in the Christian order of love or charity: as fraternity."  "Augustine speaks of 'doing the truth' (veritatem facere), which does not come down to revealing, unveiling, nor to informing in the order of cognitive reason.  Perhaps it comes down to testifying." Derrida introduces his comments about Augustine with this explanation for its relationship to his work-- it inaugurates  "movement of the soul, or, if you prefer, of a conversion of existence...."  "This conversion turns (itself) toward the other in order to turn (it) to God without there being an order to these two movements that are in truth the same...." (pp38-39)   Faithfulness to God is fulfilled, it is fully commensurate with , indeed it is only authentic when it "turns (itself) toward the other...."  Above all other spiritual disciplines, the prophet tells us, God chooses justice.  This is "God's wisdom," as Paul writes; it reveals to us "the mind of Christ."  Those who chose it heal/restore/preserve/cleanse/flavor their communities like "salt;"  these deeds bring "light" everywhere they shine.  People pour out into the streets, busy with the activities that build human community, "doing the truth."

In Shakespear's The Tempest, the Duke taunts Puritan Angelo for not practicing his piety in community life:
     Heaven doth with us as we with torches do
     Not light them for themsleves; for if our virtues
     Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
     As if we had them not