4th Sunday after Epiphany

February 3, 2002
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Micah 6: 1-8
Reading 2: 
Psalm 15
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 1: 18-31
Reading 4: 
Matthew 5: 1-12
By Barry Woodbridge

What is the theme for the Fourth Sunday in Epiphany? We ask because every other Sunday in Epiphany has a clear biblical narrative event or manifestation in the life of Jesus: the Magi, first miracle of turning water into wine, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ calling of the disciples, and on the last Sunday of Epiphany, the transfiguration. This Sunday alone does not usually have such as clear a defining biblical narrative event, except if that be the manifestation of Jesus in the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Taking the Hebrew Bible lection from Micah and the gospel lection from Matt. 5, one could conclude this is the manifestation of the Christ through the proclamation of God’s justice. Indeed, this is the only day in the three-year lectionary cycle to hear and respond to the complete macarisms or beatitudes, unless we have a service for All Saints Day (they appear again Nov. 1, and Luke’s shortened version did appear in Epiphany 6C) or devote a series to them separately from the lectionary. Even so, what do we do then with Paul’s important propositions about foolishness of humans and the wisdom of God in I Cor 1:18-31, which only occurs one other Sunday in Lent 3B unless we have a service on Tuesday during Holy Week? Too many texts; too little time to entertain them all if we only worship once a week!

Let us explore these texts, then, from two thematic perspectives, the Micah-Matthew theme of justice and right action, and the Pauline theme of the power/wisdom of God and the "foolishness" of the wise, and let the process synthesist among us who brings those two together submit her or his approach in the comments below to continue this Epiphany dialogue!

Micah 6 begins in the courtroom with Yahweh presiding and presenting the divine case of faithfulness to Israel. Israel issues a responsive declaration to this ancient "Order to Show Cause" or OSC hearing, and in fact begs "the court" (which always means the judge) what constitutes acceptable evidence. Their appeal breaks into hyperbole after "Shall we approach the bench with calves a year old?," then "ten thousand rivers of oil?," and finally, "Well, what exactly does it take to please the court for our violations , a sacrifice of our firstborn son?" Yahweh the presiding justice has previously handed down the ruling which pertains to this case, and now it is read back into Micah’s court record as though the respondent failed to cite the most relevant case of all: "He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

The process-informed preacher may want to deal with the proposal in that verb "halak," to walk. Conservatives have tended to corner the verb more as an issue of private moral accountability in the process of sanctification when they ask one another or a new disciple, "So, how’s your walk… with the Lord?" The possible answers are linear in terms of proximity – one is either far or near in their "walk." Some commentators have suggested the adverb "humbly" modifying halak should be taken as "carefully" or "circumspectively." (See James Limburg, Hosea-Micha, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981, 192.) If so, one is watching all around, and one’s attention and attunement to points of divine disclosure constitute the validity of their faithfulness. However, the text doesn’t discuss "one’s walking." A nation (this is a social spiritual discipline after all, not a privatistic Fanny Crosby solo walk! ) "walks humbly" when it pays attention to the eruptions of the divine aims in a destabilizing environment, not just when there is comfort and plenty.

Now, the beatitudes in Matthew 5 and Paul’s discussion of wisdom and foolishness 1 Cor. 1:18-31 do have something very much in common if we consider their audience. Ask your congregation if any can recall a time they have found themselves listening to a conversation where someone else was discussing something they should not be overhearing? A spouse overhearing their partner’s description of themselves to a close friend? A member of another ethnic minority group discussing how they perceive the listener’s ethnic group? A colleague informally "evaluating" the listener’s job performance, unaware they are listening? Ask them to recall the feelings of embarrassment or perhaps uneasiness surrounding that event. Then, if by chance those hearing this text today belong to a social economic group that is majority or has considerable social power, suggest that they "overhear" these texts the same way. Jesus is blessing those who are poor and oppressed, and if we are not of that group ourselves , we are "guests" to this occurrence and are perhaps by global standards we ourselves participate in the persecuting, oppressing, and even terrorizing We cannot change what people group we live in, nor should we a priori exempt ourselves from the blessings of the text, but we do need to hear it with a humility of standing by without usurping the message for ourselves, as though it were addressed directly to us.

A similar dynamic occurs in Paul’s address to the church at Corinth. Are we technologically and informationally wise in this age? Are we by chance those "in power" through the knowledge we have gained about information technology or the management thereof ? Later, in verse 26, Paul specifies that not many of his audience fell into this category of being the wise and in power in their age, so he was writing to those in the minority who were marginalized by those in power through wisdom. If we are not that audience, then Paul has a proposal to challenge us. The power systems we rely upon and our reliance upon the so-called five 9’s of informational systems fault tolerance (i.e., new information technology that is supposed to be available 99.999% of the time and therefore only unavailable 5:17 minutes in an entire year!) may not be the ultimate power in our cosmos. There is alternative persuasive power of divine initiative which may not appear on those information system charts and which never fails (Rom 8:38-39). Our choice, according to Paul is not one or the other. The Corinthians would have misunderstood if they had thought that all sophia or wisdom were useless and that they should become the pneumatic ones only by responding to the spontaneities of the Spirit! Likewise, our choice today is not between reason and the irrational but between dependence upon reason alone versus a reason open to, inclusive of, and integrating the affective and intuitional. In this sense, "foolish" may come to mean "not defined by too narrow a world view."