So here we are, caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock and the hard place are provided, in the lectionary which we follow, by the Sunday readings which bookmark this day, from the last Sunday of Epiphany, before today, and the first Sunday of Lent, after today.
This is the rock. It is encountered on the top of the mountain. The mountain, of course, was made of rock. And yet, this is not the hard igneous rock, or the more malleable sedimentary rock, which presses against us, from the story. For it was on this mountain, the traditional place of encounter with the Holy One, blessed be he, the place where revelation of the Divine would take place, that the rock of belief in Jesus was shaped, and made manifest, and imprinted on the minds and hearts of the disciples who were there.
For on the top of the rock, Jesus was seen to be a great one, comfortably at home alongside the existing greats of the faith, Elijah the prophet and Moses the Lawgiver. On the mountain was the place of glorious revelation, as a magically translucent light shone forth, from Jesus, over the disciples, conveying penetrating insight, illuminating a divine truth, revealing the essence of Jesus: “This is. my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” He was, then not only among the great ones; he was the great one.
But such revelation, as gloriously indulgent as it might seem, also brings a sharp edge: the confrontation of standing in the very presence of the glory of the Holy One, blessed be He, the challenge of knowing that, once you have seen this reality, your life will be different. There is no turning back. You are now a follower of the man of Nazareth; a man who has the capacity to bring you closer than you ever imagined into the awesome and awful presence of the holy one, blessed be his name. You are marked, charged, and equipped for the life of discipleship by virtue of the vision in the rock which has claimed you as God’s.
That is the rock. What of the hard place?
The hard place is out in the wilderness, away from the towns, in the desert area which appears, to all intents and purposes, to be harsh, stringent, and utterly challenging to life. It is the place where Israel struggled, complained, and debated, for “a heaps long, long time” (that’s my translation of forty years). And it’s the place where Jesus struggled, debated, and resisted, for “a mighty long time” (that is, in biblical-speak, for forty days).
Of course, it was in the wilderness that Israel came to know its essential identity: a people, beloved by God, rescued from slavery, called into covenant, equipped for the battles of entry into the land, as the great myth from the past declared. “You shall be my people, and I shall be your God”, and so the terms of the covenant were sealed.
And it was in the wilderness that Jesus came to know his destiny and the integrity of his life: as the one who was not the showman, turning stones into bread; as the one who was not the magician, able to levitate, float, defy gravity; and as the one who was not invested with power and authority to trump his greatness over the peoples of the earth. It was in the wilderness that Jesus came to know his identity as the Son of the Holy One, blessed be he; and to know of his mission as the one specifically chosen by that Holy One, blessed be he.
From this time on, says Matthew, Jesus preached his ominous clarion call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And the pressing urgency of this message, the confrontation of this call, scratches at our ears and agitates our hearts. How can we not be disturbed by this Gospel? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
How can we not feel hard pressed, faithfully following the man of Nazareth, yet dazzled by his demanding call, joyously celebrating his transfigured glory, yet humbled by the mission of repentance, to which he insistently invites us.
So Lent offers a time of reflection, perhaps of sacrificial abstinence. A call to follow, knowing that this is no ordinary journey, this is no ordinary man. Each one of us has been stirred, provoked, perhaps upended, by just such a call. We are caught in between a rock and a hard place, between the joy of being in the presence of the transfigured one, and the dawning reality of just what it will mean to repent, to turn around, to engage in the mission. And that is what Lent will offer us, each day, each week, through this period of preparation.
May you be faithful to respond to the call, to experience and endure and appreciate what it means to be squeezed between the rock and the hard place, to dedicate yourself to service as a disciple and to follow the pathway set out by the man of Nazareth.
This reflection was offered to candidates for ministry in the Perth Theological Hall in March 2017.
In the Gospel reading provided for Ash Wednesday each year (Matt 6:1–6, 16–21), the lectionary offers us a part of the long discourse that Jesus gave, on top of a mountain, to his disciples (5:1–7:29). The text infers that he was seeking to avoid “the crowds” (5:1), although by the end of the discourse (known popularly as The Sermon on the Mount) it is clear that this escape had not worked, for “when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching” (7:28).
In the middle section of this long discourse, the section from which this reading comes, the Matthean Jesus instructs his listeners on righteous-justice (6:1–18). The Greek word used in the first verse is dikaiosunē, which some contemporary English translations render as “piety”. The Greek word is rich in meaning (it is a key word both for Jesus and for Paul); in the Septuagint, it often translates tzedakah, a Hebrew word used to describe the quality of God’s just and fair dealings with human beings.
The prophets, for instance, consistently advocated for righteous-justice. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”, Amos declares (Amos 5:24). Isaiah laments the state of the city: “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers” (Isa 1:21), and tells a parable ending with the despairing words that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isa 5:7).
Jeremiah reiterates the instruction of the Lord, “act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed” (Jer 22:3) and Ezekiel warns, “the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it” (Ezek 18:26). In a vision in which Gabriel appears to Daniel, a period of seventy weeks are given for the people “to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness” (Dan 9:24).
In his final vision (in the last chapter of the Old Testament, in the order in which it appears in Christian scriptures), Malachi prophesies that “for those who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise … and you shall tread down the wicked” Mal 4:2). An emphasis on righteous-justice is also found in other prophetic works (Hos 10:12; Isa 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4). Righteous-justice was a key factor for the prophets. See also
Many psalms evoke the righteous-justice of God (for instance, Ps 5:8; 7:17; 9:8; 17:15; 33:5; 50:6; 72:1–3; 89:14, 16; 103:17; 119:142; 145:7). Some psalms note that God “watches over the way of the righteous” (Ps 1:6), and “blesses the righteous” (Ps 5:12), and “upholds the righteous” (Ps 37:17). Those who practise righteous-justice “shall be kept safe forever” (Ps 37:28), they “shall inherit the land” (Ps 37:29).
Because “the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord” (Ps 37:39), the psalmist calls for celebration: “rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, praise befits the upright” (Ps 33:1). “Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall live in your presence” (Ps 140:13; likewise, 64:10; 68:3; 119:7, 62, 164). And so, the psalmist prays that the righteous-justice of God might be evident in the lives of the people: “judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to the integrity that is in me” (Ps 7:8).
In a psalm that looks hopefully to a time when God will withdraw his wrath and bring salvation (Ps 85:1–9), we hear the words, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other; faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (Ps 85:10–11). These are the qualities of God, which the psalmist yearns to see exhibited also in the lives of the faithful: “righteousness will go before him [the Lord] and will make a path for his steps” (Ps 85:13).
“The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness” (Ps 18:20, 24); amongst “those who fear the Lord”, “righteousness ensures forever” (112:3, 19). So, “happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times” (Ps 106:3); “let your priests be clothed with righteousness and let your faithful sing for joy” (Ps 132:9). The psalms overflow with celebrating the righteous-justice of God and calling for actions of righteous-justice to be undertaken by the people.
In the context it is being used in Matt 6, this word indicates the means by which human beings might give expression to the righteousness which is inherent in God’s being. How do we live in the world in a way that shows we are committed to being the people of God? So its use here refers to how faithful followers of Jesus are to undertake just actions in their lives, not just in performing “acts of piety”. I’m going to use the translation “doing acts of righteous-justice” to convey that sense.
Jesus has already given a strong statement advocating for the importance and priority of doing acts of righteous-justice in the lives of his followers. He declares that God seeks a righteous-justice which “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20)—a passage which we read just a few weeks back. See
The term also appears in the teachings of Jesus in the Matthean version of two beatitudes about those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (5:6) and those who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (5:10); the parallel beatitudes in Luke have no reference to righteous-justice. The term also appears in the well-known exhortation to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33), and in the comment concluding the parable of the two sons, that John “came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him” (21:32). (The “you” in question here must be those Jewish leaders referred to at 21:23.)
Here, in these instructions, the emphasis that Jesus brings is to reinforce that such deeds of righteous-justice are to be undertaken without any expectation of reward or admiration. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1); and then, “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret” (6:3–4).
This followed by “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (6:6), and finally “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret” (6:17–18). These deeds have value in and of themselves, for they show a person’s inner commitment to the way that Jesus teaches. There is no need of external acknowledgement or reward, for in each case, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (6:4, 6, 18).
By focussing on alms (6:2–4), prayer, (6:5–15), and fasting (6:16–18), Jesus does no less than instruct on three forms of traditional Jewish righteous-justice. Texts from the hellenistic period indicate the importance of these actions. Tobit 12:8 states, “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness”. Jesus, as always in Matthew’s book of origins, maintains steadfast and intense commitment to Torah. He is a deeply faithful Jew.
In the Letter of Aristeas, also from the hellenistic period, we find the observation that “nothing has been enacted in the Scripture thoughtlessly or without due reason, but its purpose is to enable us throughout our whole life and in all our actions to practice righteousness before all people, being mindful of Almighty God … the whole system aims at righteousness and righteous relationships between human beings” (Ep. Arist. 168–169). We shall see that this scriptural basis is the case for each of the three forms of doing righteous-justice that Jesus instructs.
Alms. The first expression of righteous-justice is to give alms (6:2–4). Whilst the precise terminology that we find here appears only in later, hellenistic texts, the fundamental concept involved in giving alms to the poor is very clearly expressed in the Hebrew Bible. “If there is anyone in need among you”, the Deuteronomist has Moses declare, “do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour; you should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deut 15:7–8; likewise, 24:14–15). The law of gleaning made secure provision for feeding the poor of the land (Lev 19:10; 23:22; Deut 24:21; and see Ruth 2 and the later rabbinic discussion in tractate Pe’ah of the Mishnah).
The psalmist affirms, “it is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice; for the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever” (Ps 112:5–6), whilst the sage declares in a proverb, “whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full” (Prov 19:17).
And Job declares his commitment to giving alms, helping to poor, when he says, albeit with a rhetorically exaggerated style, “if I have withheld anything that the poor desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or have eaten my morsel alone, and the orphan has not eaten from it … if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or a poor person without covering, whose loins have not blessed me … then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket” (Job 31:16–22).
Prayer. The second way that righteous-justice can be expressed is prayer (6:5–15). This section is perhaps best known because, whilst instructing his disciples how to pray, the Matthean Jesus offers a distinctive formula for prayer (6:9–13). Although this prayer has become known as the distinctive Christian prayer, a close study of Hebrew Scriptures shows that the concept in each clause (and in almost every case, the precise terminology of each clause) has originated in Jewish thought.
Prayer, of course, was a regular and central practice amongst the Israelites over the centuries. One tractate of the Mishnah, Berakhot (meaning “blessing”) was devoted to instructions for prayer. Hebrew Scripture contains many instances of prayers offered by key figures in Israel. In the wilderness, people ask Moses to pray to the Lord (Num 21:7). When her son in born, Hannah prays with praise and thanksgiving (1 Sam 2:1–10), and then at Mizpah, her son Samuel (now an adult) prays to God on behalf of the people (1 Sam 7:5), and the people ask him to pray to God on their behalf (1 Sam 12:19, 23).
David finds “courage to pray [a] prayer” to God after having been chosen “to build a house” for God (2 Sam 7:27; 1 Chron 17:16–27), and then when the Temple had been built, Solomon prays a long, extended prayer to dedicate the building (1 Kings 8:22–53). Prayer is integral to the life of the people of Israel. At the end of the Exile, Nehemiah fasts and prays for the people (Neh 1:4–11). The prophet Daniel prayed three times a day whilst he was in Babylon, despite orders to the contrary (Dan 6:10–13)—a practice that appears to have been kept by Peter (Acts 3:1; 10:3, 30).
The section on prayer is omitted from the lectionary selection for Ash Wednesday. (Neither does it appear anywhere else in the Revised Common Lectionary.) Why might this be? Perhaps to ensure the focus on this day of penitence stays on almsgiving and fasting—actions which require specific external activity, not simply the internal activity of prayer?
Fasting. The third way of acting with righteous-justice that Jesus teaches is fasting (6:16–21). A fast was a way to signal fidelity to the covenant with God, in the face of personal distress (2 Sam 12:22–23) or when the nation was under attack (2 Chron 20:1–4). Jezebel called for fasting in her scheming to obtain the vineyard of Naboth (1 Ki 21:9–12) and Ezra decreed a fast whilst still in exile, prior to returning to the land (Ezra 8:21–23).
In exile, Queen Esther ordered fasting, which Mordecai carried out (Esther 4:15–17); before he is sent into exile, Jeremiah reported that King Jehoiakim proclaimed a fast for “all the people in Jerusalem and all the people who came from the towns of Judah to Jerusalem” as preparation for hearing the scroll read by Baruch (Jer 36:9–10).
When the people of Nineveh repented in response to the preaching of Jonah, they held a fast (Jonah 3:1–5), while the prophet Joel calls the priests to put on sackcloth and “sanctify a fast” (Joel 1:13–14) and then for all the people to “sanctify a fast” (Joel 2:15–16). These fasts were intended to recall the people to the covenant that they had with the Lord God, and lead them to focus on his they might best live in accordance with lives of righteous-justice that were expected from that covenant.
The call which we hear on Ash Wednesday in the Gospel that is offered (Matt 6:1–6, 16–21) is thus a call that Jesus draws from deep within the wells of his Jewish faith and tradition: a call to be intentional, focussed, and committed in acting in ways that demonstrate the righteous-justice of God, lived out in the lives of faithful believers, especially care for the needy and focussing on our relationship with God. It is a call that sounds with clarity for us at the start of this Lenten season.
The Hebrew Scripture passage set by the lectionary for Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent, is part of an extended announcement by the prophet Joel (1:13–2:17), calling the people of Israel to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13), “sanctify a fast” (1:14), “blow the trumpet” (2:1) in order to “return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). He exhorts the people to offer a prayer to “spare your people, O Lord” (2:17).
The prophet makes this call in the midst of describing the Day of the Lord that is coming—“a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1–2). He evokes the traditional imagery of repentance—sackcloth and lament, weeping and mourning, prayer and fasting—as the appropriate responses to that Day, even as he utilises the traditional imagery of the doom that awaits on that Day.
The prophets warned of the Day of the Lord; it will be “darkness, not light” (Amos 5:18), it will come “like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa 13:6), as “a day of distress and anguish” (Zeph 1:14). Joel joins his voice with this parade of doom: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1–2).
Yet the response desired is not meek acceptance, but rather to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12). “Return to the Lord, your God”, Joel advises, highlighting the central purpose of the role of the prophet, to recall the people from their waywardness and lead them to recommit to the covenant with God, which lies at the heart of the identity of the people of Israel. That’s probably the reason that this passage from centuries before the time of Jesus (let alone our time) is set for Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent begins.
The tradition about Lent is that it is a time for “giving up”, for restraint and abstention and ascetic practices. However, Lent is also a time for returning; for re-connecting with God, for turning back to depend on God, for returning to the heart of faith. And this passage helps to remind us of that purpose.
The passage also provides a further thought which undergirds the call to “return to the Lord”, and that is what it says about the fundamental nature of God. Joel repeats a mantra that must have been important to the people of ancient Israel; an affirmation about the nature of God, the one who, in the midst of the turmoil of the Day of the Lord, stands firm as the one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).
For, although the Lord is credited as the one who demonstrates his wrath on the Day of the Lord, this divine figure is also one who is willing to step back from the threat of judgement and destruction, who is willing to give a new opportunity to a repentant person, and reach out to them in grace. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?”, the prophet asks. And so, he advocates that the people leave “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:13–14). The process requires maintaining a tangible sign of the intention to return to God: an offering, in ancient Israel, a marking of ashes, on Ash Wednesday, for Christians.
The mantra that Joel offers about God is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).
The same affirmation about God is made in the story of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod 34:6). This citation, however, does maintain the ominous threat that this same Lord is yet “by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”, so the picture is fuller and more realistic here.
During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), after the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship 9f the Lord in the Temple, exhorting the people, “do not now be stiff-necked as your ancestors were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger may turn away from you” (2 Chron 30:8).
It was a time to “return to the Lord”, and Hezekiah encouraged the people, especially encouraging northerners who had suffered under the Assyrians to return, saying “your kindred and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” (2 Chron 30:8–9). That same mantra appears.
Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, and then returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, confessing that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt” (Neh 9:16).
Ezra continued in praise of God: “you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).
It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a fry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).
In another, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).
In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).
And in still another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this aged, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom we turn on this Ash Wednesday, seeking to return to our foundational commitment.