Choose life: loving, obeying, holding fast (Deuteronomy 30; Psalm 119; Epiphany 6A)

The season of Epiphany is marked by an emphasis on light, a symbol of the manifestation or revelation of God in Jesus. (Epiphany is from the Greek word for “shine forth”—thus, a manifestation, a revelation.)

The note of revelation through light was sounded in the announcement of an unnamed post-exilic prophet found in the Hebrew Scripture reading for The Feast of the Epiphany: “arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you … nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:1, 3).

It was continued in the words of another, earlier, unnamed prophet in the Hebrew Scripture reading for Epiphany 1, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, in words sung to The Servant: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is 42:6–7).

Then, for Epiphany 2, we heard a repetition and extension of that imagery of light, in the second song sung to The Servant: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). There was also a repeated indication of the worship that kings will bring: “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you” (Isa 49:7).

The motif of illumination continued on Epiphany 3, as the prophet Isaiah, some centuries earlier, foresaw the significance of the birth of a child in the royal line: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (Isa 9:2).

For Epiphany 4, the focus shifted to the way that people were to respond to the revelation of God’s ways, made known in the words of the prophets, through the testimony of The Servant, and even through the birth of a child. So, Micah proclaimed, “the Lord … 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?” (Mic 6:8).

Then followed, on Epiphany 5, the advice of the anonymous post-exilic prophet whose words are collected in the last section of the book of Isaiah. Ne advises the people to enact the fast that the Lord chooses: “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, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (Isa 58:6–7).

Immediately following this, the prophet returns to the Epiphany theme of illumination: “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isa 58:8). These ways of acting are, as I have explored, central to the covenant between God and Israel; the prophet itemises a series of practical behaviours that would signal that Israelite society was founded on the justice and righteousness that God required through the covenant. That is how they were to respond to the illumination of the light, given to them time and time again. See

So each week, an excerpt from a prophetic text has undergirded the key feature of the ongoing season of Epiphany. Of course, the prophets weren’t speaking about our Christian season of Epiphany; but the compilers of the lectionary have chosen these passages, quite deliberately, to provide an ongoing focus each Sunday throughout this season.

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This coming Sunday, by contrast, there is no mention of light, or dark. However, the passage chosen from Hebrew Scripture (Deut 30:15–20) does continue the motif of justice, as articulated by prophets before the Exile (Micah 6) and on return to the land, after exile (Isaiah 58). We are offered an excerpt from the final speech of Moses, the great prophet, as it was attributed to him by a writer many centuries later from the time he is alleged to have lived—the unknown author of the book of Deuteronomy.

When Josiah was King of Judah (from 640 to 609 BCE), he instituted a series of reforms (probably during the late 620’s). What drove the reforms was the discovery, in the midst of the restoration of the Temple, of an ancient book of the Law, at the bottom of a money chest that had recently been raided to pay for renovations to the Temple (2 Ki 22:8–10).

This book set out the requirements of the Law; when it was discovered, Josiah realises that the nation has not been faithful to the covenant, and that God will punish them. He consults the prophet Huldah, who advised King Josiah to undertake the thoroughgoing reforms of religion in Judah that characterised his reign. “Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel, and made all who were in Israel worship the Lord their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord the God of their ancestors” (2 Chron 24:33).

It is thought by some scholars that the book found in the money chest was Deuternonomy, or perhaps an earlier version of the book we now have. (The name, Deuteronomy, comes from two Greek words, meaning “second law”—perhaps a reference to the fact that in this book so many of the laws stated in Exodus and Leviticus are restated a second time.) There is no doubt that this book sounds a single, insistent theme, requiring that the people of Israel listen to the words that God gave Moses to speak to them, that they listen and obey, putting the instructions and commands into practice in every element of their daily lives.

Indeed, a key statement in this book is recited to this day by faithful Jews, reminding them of their obligation to respond to God’s gift: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:4–5, known for the first word of these verses, the Shema).

So this passage continues: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut 6:6–9; see also 11:18–21).

This central commandment is to be remembered and enacted at every time of the day, in every situation and place. Throughout this book, the people are regularly reminded to “keep” the commandments (4:2, 40; 5:10, 12, 15, 29; 6:2, 6, 17, 24; 7:9; 8:2, 6, 11; 10:13; 11:1, 8; 13:4; 16:10, 13, 15; 26:17–18; 27:1, 9; 28:9). They are told to “obey the voice of the Lord God” (8:20; 13:4, 18), the Lord who speaks through the commandments (11:27–28; 12:28; 15:5; 26:17; 27:10; 28:1–2, 13, 15; 30:2, 8, 10, 16). Loving the Lord God is at the heart of these commandments (6:5; 7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). In this way, the people “hold fast” to God (10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20).

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In the passage offered for this coming Sunday, this requirement of diligent listening and faithful obedience is sounded for the final time in this long book; the people are instructed to “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut 30:19–20).

And so, the benefits of such listening, obeying, and holding fast are set forth: “if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess” (Deut 30:16).

We have already discussed how Torah (the Law) was widely appreciated and deeply valued amongst the people of Israel, such that psalms and prophetic voices could exclaim, “happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments” (Ps 112:1). See

It is worth noting that, in Hebrew, the same word (Shema) is translated into English by two key terms—most often, as “hear” (as in Deut 6:4), but on occasions, as “obey” (as in Deut 11:27–28, and other places in this book). The sense of obey, then, is to hear, register, and put into practice what has been heard—thus, to obey. Hearing is not simply an act of the ear; it is an act of the whole being, moving from what the ear registers to what the mouth says, the hands do, the heart shows. That is the full sense of the instructions that are given in this speech by Moses at the end of his life (according to the narrative setting of the whole book; see Deut 31:14; 32:48–52; 34:1–8).

In the verse prior to this section, the people are reminded of how they are to relate to God: “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (30:14). Hearing God, obeying the commandments that God has given, and living God’s way, are all immediately at hand—indeed, they are within the people. This is much like Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant, when “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33), or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, when God promises, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezek 37:14).

Indeed, this positive appreciation of the Law is picked up well in the Psalm offered for this Sunday, namely, the first stanza (verses 1–8) of the longest psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119. This psalm offers lavish and continued praise for Torah—identified variously as “the law of the Lord” (v.1), “his decrees” (v.2), “his ways” (v.3), “your precepts” (v.4), “your statutes” (v.5), “your commandments” (v.6), “your righteous ordinances” (v.7), and once again “your statutes” (v.8). These terms recur in each stanza of this lengthy, extended psalm of 178 verses, along with the familiar “your word” (vv.9, 11, 16).

The blessings of hearing and obeying this law are also set forth in this opening stanza of Psalm 119: those who hear and obey are blameless (v.1), blessed (vv.1,2), they do no wrong (v.3), keep the precepts diligently (v.4), have steadfast ways (v.5), will not be opus to shame (v.6), praise God with an upright heart (v.7) and are not forsaken by God (v.8). Similarly appreciative phrases recur through all 22 stanzas of this psalm.

“Choose life, that you may live; loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut 30:19–20). “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps 119:1). Or, as Jesus declares, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19).

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This is “the fast that I choose” (Isaiah 58; Epiphany 5A)

The passage of Hebrew Scripture which is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Isaiah 58:1–12, comes from the third section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66). This section of the book was written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE).

The section begins with a familiar prophetic announcement: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). In the following chapters, the unnamed prophet demonstrates what justice will look like through a series of powerful oracles. The extensive worship of idols (57:1–13) will bring God’s wrath on the people; “there is no peace, says my God, for the wicked” (57:13). Rather, “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” chooses “to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite” (57:15).

Because God indicates that “I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry” (57:16), the prophet conveys what the Lord sees as the fast that is required; not a fast when “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers” (58:3), not a fast when “you quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist” (58:4). The sad reality is that the lives of the people demonstrate their rebellion and sin (58:1). Caring actions, actions of compassion, acts which adhere to God’s justice and righteousness, are what is required.

So the prophet declares that God chooses a 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, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (58:6–7).

The words of this post-exilic prophet resonate with the actions of “the righteous” in the well-known parable of Jesus, as they gave food, water, a welcome, clothing, and care to those sick or imprisoned (Matt 25:31–46). “I was hungry and you gave me food”, says the Son of Man; “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:35–36). It is because of these caring acts that the invitation is extended to these righteous ones: “come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34).

Throughout Hebrew scripture, these acts of the righteous—deeds of justice—are consistently affirmed as what God requires. The Psalmist praises “the God of Jacob … who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry … [who] sets the prisoners free, [who] opens the eyes of the blind, [who] lifts up those who are bowed down [and] loves the righteous, [who] watches over the strangers [and] upholds the orphan and the widow” (Ps 146:5, 7–9).

The people of God are regularly enjoined to emulate these actions in their lives. The Law is clear that “you must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes … justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (Deut 16:19–20), while Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people” (Isa 10:1–2).

Regarding feeding the hungry, the sages advise, “if your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink” (Prov 25:21), and “if you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard” (Prov 21:23). The law relating to gleaning (Lev 19:9–10) indicates that provision for the poor was integral to the way that society was to function in ancient Israel.

Housing those in need of shelter was expected in Israel. Strangers from other nations who came to Israel, with no homes to live in, were to be welcomed (Deut 10:19) and regarded “as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself” (Lev 19:34). The law concerning “any of your kin [who] fall into difficulty” instructs that “you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens” (Lev 25:35), and the people are to allot land “as an inheritance … for the aliens who reside amongst you”, for “they shall be to you as citizens of Israel” (Ezek 47:22)

Nakedness was a sign of shame in ancient Israelite society, first articulated in the second creation story (Gen 3:7–11) and then in the story of Noah’s drunken state (Gen 9:20–23) and David’s frenzied dancing before the ark of the Lord (2 Sam 6:16, 20–22). Job comments disapprovingly of those who, amongst other sinful actions, “cause the poor to go about naked without clothing” (Job 24:2–10). Many prophets rail against nakedness as a symbol of Israel’s sinfulness (Isa 20:3; 47:3; 57:8; Ezek 16:36–38; 23:18; Nah 3:5) and indicate the importance of “covering one’s nakedness” (Ezek 16:8; Hos 2:9–10).

The story is told of how “certain chiefs of the Ephraimites”, in obedience to the words of the prophet Obed (2 Chron 28:9–11), covered nakedness of the captured southerners, “and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them”, and then returned them as freed men to Jericho (2 Chron 28:15).

So the “fast that [God] chooses” which the prophet describes is a thread of justice and equity running through the story of Israel, and on into the Jesus movement. Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the naked were all practical ways to signal that the society was founded on the justice and righteousness that God required through the covenant. This is what provides “a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord” (58:5).

Yet the prophet decries the state of the nation, as they return from Exile, and laments that “there is no justice … justice is far from us … we wait for justice, but there is none … justice is turned back … the Lord saw it, and it displeased him” (59:8–15); he declares that, as a consequence, God “put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle” (59:17)—a description that underlines the later exhortations to the followers of Jesus to “put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10–17).

Because the Lord “loves justice” (61:8), the prophet has been anointed “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God” (61:1–2)—words which are appropriated by Jesus when he visits his hometown and reads from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:18–19); “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, Jesus declares (Luke 4:21).

Adhering to this way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires, means that he will give Israel a new name; as the prophet declares, “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isa 62:4).

To secure this promised future, the prophet adopts an attitude of penitence, yearning for God to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). His plea for the Lord to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1–2) must surely have been in the mind of the evangelists as the reported the baptism of Jesus, when he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The book of Isaiah ends with a sequence in which the prophet reports the words of the Lord which indicate that Israel will be restored (65:1–16), followed by the statement that the Lord is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17–25; 66:22–23). This vision is taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). It is a hopefully positive way to end the whole book, as well as the oracles of the anonymous post-exilic prophet whose words are collected in the latter part of this long book of Isaiah.

Within that envisaged new creation, “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress” (65:19). There will be houses for shelter and vineyards for sustenance, and a just and equitable distribution of resources (65:21–22), with blissful peace marking all relationships (65:25) and a wonderful inclusiveness of the peoples of “all nations and tongues” (66:18–21). The prosperity of the people (66:12–13) reflects the absence of inequity and the diligent practice of justice—a fine fulfilment of the prophecy about “the true fast” that we will read, and hear, this coming Sunday.

To delight in the commandments (Psalm 112; Epiphany 5A)

The psalm which is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Psalm 112:1–10) portrays “those who fear the Lord” (verses 1–9) in contrast to “the wicked” (verse 10). I suspect that this psalm was chosen as a fitting companion to the Gospel reading, in which Jesus strongly affirms the Law: “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17).

This affirmation of the Law (in Hebrew, תּוֹרָה, transliterated as Torah) is a distinctive characteristic of the book of origins which we attribute, by tradition, to the disciple Matthew. In this Gospel, Jesus holds consistently to the requirements of Torah, advocating strongly for the righteous-justice that is at its heart, debating strenuously the interpretations offered by the scribes and Pharisees, and claiming his role as the authorised Teacher of Torah: “you have one teacher, and you are all students … nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Matt 23:8, 10).

[As a side note: the last verse of Psalm 112—which should not be omitted, despite the suggestion that is possible by the lectionary itself—also resonates with the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. It is largely in this Gospel that Jesus speaks of evildoers being thrown into “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; cf. Luke 3:28). That phrase, of course, is used by the psalmist to characterise the fate of “the wicked”, who, when they see the blessings of the righteous, “are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away” (Ps 112:10).]

The strong affirmation of Torah which is expressed in Matthew’s Gospel is ubiquitous throughout Hebrew Scripture. The Law is God’s gift to Israel; in Exodus, God tells Moses, “I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instructions (Exod 24:12).

In a later retelling the story of Moses, the Deuteronomist has Moses, speaking on behalf of God, telling the Israelites, “take to heart all the words that I am giving in witness against you today; give them as a command to your children, so that they may diligently observe all the words of this law” (Deut 32:46). Indeed, he intensifies this in the next sentence: “this is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life” (Deut 32:47). The Torah is the very heart of the matter.

Some of the great figures in Israel (at least in the historical sagas that were collected) are remembered as those who were faithful to Torah. On Josiah, the great reformer who recalled a faithless Israel to the covenant, we are told “before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).

On Hezekiah, who had the neglected Temple cleansed and sanctified and then restored the right worship of the Lord in the Temple (2 Chron 30:8–9), we read that “every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God, and in accordance with the law and the commandments, to seek his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered” (2 Chron 31:21). And during the restoration of Jerusalem, we are told that Ezra “had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).

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Each of these leaders manifested in their life what this Sunday’s psalm states; they are “those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments” (Ps 112:1). Elsewhere in the psalms, this same piety is clearly evident. The opening psalm affirms that for the righteous, “their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Ps 1:2). A later psalm declares that “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Ps 40:8).

The longest psalm of all, Psalm 119, is an acrostic series of 22 eight-verse stanzas (arranged alphabetically) in which the author(s) consistently affirm this. “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Ps 119:16). By contrast to “the arrogant”, whose “hearts are fat and gross”, the psalmist declares, “I delight in your law” (Ps 119:70).

Again, we hear, “let your mercy come to me, that I may live, for your law is my delight” (Ps 119:77); “if your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my misery” (Ps 119:92); and “I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight” (Ps 119:74). Echoing these words many centuries later, Paul, in the midst of his agonising about Torah in Romans 7, is able to affirm, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self” (Rom 7:22). Delight for the Law runs through Jewish history.

So this longest of all psalms, a series of 22 meditations on Torah, contains regular affirmations of its place in personal and communal piety: “give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (v.34); “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long” (v.97); “I hate the double-minded, but I love your law” (v.113); “I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law” (v.163); and, “great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble” (v.165).

In the long speech attributed to Moses (but actually crafted many centuries later during the time of a renewal of the covenant), the lawgiver distills the essence of Torah: “now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 10:12). Love is at the heart of the Law, as later faithful Jews would affirm. the Preacher, writing as Hellenism comes to the ascendancy, declares that “those who fear the Lord seek to please him, and those who love him are filled with his law” (Sirach 2:16).

Just a few centuries later the Pharisee-turned-evangelist Paul declares that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” and, citing a number of commandments, emphasises that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8–10); and again, citing a verse from the Torah, he affirms that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:14, quoting Lev 19:18).

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The terms used in Psalm 112 to describe “those who fear the Lord” and “delight in his commandments” are striking. Most strikingly, they are characterised by their “righteousness” (112:3), which is at the heart of Torah. The psalmist places these two concepts in poetic parallelism in the song, “your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is the truth” (Ps 119:142).

They are depicted as “upright” (112:2, 4) and they “conduct their affairs with justice” (112:5). This is a central claim of Torah on the people: “justice, only justice you shall follow” (Deut 16:20), “with justice you shall judge your neighbour” (Lev 19:15)—with the corollary that “anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” is to be cursed (Deut 27:19). The call for justice is, likewise, a regular refrain amongst the prophets, calling the people to act justly (Amos 5:18–24; Micah 6:6–8; Isa 5:1–7; 42:1–4; 56:1–2; Jer 21:12; 22:3; 33:15; Ezek 18:5–9; 34:11–16; Zeph 3:5; Zech 7:9, to name just some of the many key passages on justice).

These people are “blessed” (112:2), a word which resounds through the stories and songs of the ancient Israelites. God’s blessings are given in the story of the creation of the world, where God blessed “living creatures of every kind” (Gen 1:22), and then humankind, made “in the image of God” and blessed to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 1:26–28). God blesses Noah and his sons, with the same charge to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1), and Abram (Gen 12:2), and through Abram promises to bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3; the b,easing is on “all the nations of the earth” at Gen 22:18).

An early prayer, later attributed to the priests, began, “the Lord bless you and keep you” (Num 6:23); these words are picked up in a later psalm, praying “may God be gracious to us and bless us” (Ps 67:1–7). God’s blessing is indeed realised by those who are faithful to God’s way, as expressed in Torah, with each of the patriarchs blessed: Abraham (Gen 22:15–18), Isaac (Gen 26:24), Jacob (Gen 28:1–4), and Joseph (Gen 49:22–26).

God blessed the people in the land (Deut 30:16), Elkanah and Hannah, parents of Samuel (1 Sam 2:18–20), David (2 Sam 7:28–29), and on through the ahead the blessing continued for the faithful people of Israel (Psalms 3:8; 5:12; 24:5; 29:11; 63:4; 107:38; 115:12–13; 133:3; Isa 44:1–5; Jer 31:23; Ezek 34:25–31; 37:26; Hag 2:19; Joel 2:14; Mal 3:10).

These blessed people, righteous and upright, thus are said to have exhibited the character of God, for they are “gracious, merciful and righteous” (Ps 112:4). This description echoes the refrain heard many times through the Hebrew Scriptures, affirming that the Lord God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9). This is the Lord God who enters into covenant, time and time and again, with the people of Israel; they, in turn, exemplify the qualities of God in their daily lives. They are “gracious, merciful, and righteous” (Ps 112:4).

Such a strong affirmation and deep appreciation for Torah, as we find in this psalm—and, indeed, in a number of other psalms—underlies the portrayal of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel that we will encounter, week by week, throughout this Year A of the liturgical cycle. This is the emphasis that Matthew offers, for he wants to heighten the fidelity of Jesus as a Torah-abiding Jew, and encourage his hearers and readers to follow that same pathway of faithfulness to the Torah. Jesus stands firmly in the tradition of the psalms, grateful to God for his covenant relationship with God, and seeking to live with justice and steadfast love in all the ways that God expects and requires; and he beckons us to follow in that same pathway in our lives of faith.

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See also

Justice, kindness, and humility (Micah 6; Epiphany 4A)

This Sunday, the selection of Hebrew Scripture that is offered by the lectionary comes from the book of the prophet Micah (Mic 6:1–8). This book is best known for a number of oracles, including a verse (6:8) that is included in this Sunday’s reading.

The first well-known oracle is the the vision of universal peace that Micah utters: “many nations shall come and say, come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord … they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (4:1–4).

Second, there is an oracle best known because it is quoted in Matthew’s Gospel: “you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel” (5:2–6; see Matt 2:6). In the context in which Micah speaks these words, they refer to a coming ruler of Judah. In Matthew’s narrative, the prophetic word provides support for the notion that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3–5; also John 7:42), which then means that the story of the birth of Jesus needs to take place in Bethlehem. Two evangelists work independently to tell stories that, in quite different ways, adhere to this requirement (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4).

The third oracle of Micah which is well known—the one offered in this Sunday’s lectionary—appears within an extended scene that reads like a lawsuit being prosecuted in court. It begins with the charge: “rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice … for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel” (6:1–2). Then it moves through some argumentation, before the famous rhetorical question is posed: “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).

In its immediate literary context, the verse stands as a climax to the case being mounted by the prophet, as he instructs the people,of a Israel what they are to do: to do justice, offer kindness, and live with humility. This verse has gained a life of its own; it is regularly quoted to support people of faith undertaking acts of social justice, and it adorns a multitude of t-shirts as a succinct “quotable quote”.

This verse has been the inspiration for many organisations bearing the prophet’s name—locally, there is Micah Australia (“empowering Australian Christians to advocate for global justice”; see https://www.micahaustralia.org), which is part of the Micah Challenge International (birthed by the World Evangelical Alliance and Micah Network; see https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2015-03/micah-challenge-international).

The historical context for this verse is instructive. The prophet Micah is introduced in the opening chapter of the book bearing his name, as “Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah” (Mic 1:1). This places him in the second half of the 8th century BCE. As he was active in the southern kingdom, he did not directly experience the conquest and exile of people in the northern kingdom in 721 BCE, although he must have been aware of the disasters falling his countrymen to the north. His prophetic activity is thus a couple of decades after Amos and Hosea.

Indeed, the southern kingdom of Judah directly experienced a military attack from the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701, attacking several towns in Judah (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16) before retreating from Jerusalem. As Micah says, “the sins of the house of Israel” (1:5) have reached down and infected the house of Judah; “her wound is incurable; it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem” (1:9, 12).

Under Hezekiah, the economic patterns in Judah changed from a reliance on barter, to an international trading society. Literacy rates rose, and the size of Jerusalem grew to be a city with a population of around 25,000—which is considered to be about five times larger than the population of Jerusalem under Solomon!

Associated with this growth was the development of corrupt practices and the rise of hypocrisy amongst the people. The rulers in Jerusalem “give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us’” (3:11).  

Micah, like many other prophets, conveys God’s deep concern about the way that some in society were profiting unjustly from their mistreatment of the poor. He rails against those who “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (2:2). Their haughty demeanour will swiftly turn to lamenting, as they cry out “we are utterly ruined; the Lord alters the inheritance of my people; how he removes it from me!” (2:4).

In another oracle, he dramatises the state of the people, attacking the heads and rulers of the people as those “who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (3:1–3). He decries their selfish actions in very specific terms: “its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money” (3:11).

Still later, Micah remonstrates with the people for “the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed” (6:10). He conveys God’s displeasure: “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” (6:11–12). He laments that “the faithful have disappeared from the land” (7:2); of those who are left, he says, “their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice” (7:3).

The people are accused of following “the statutes of Omri and all the works of the house of Ahab” (6:16)—two kings who are condemned for their idolatrous and evil ways (on Omri, see 1 Ki 16:25–26; on his son Ahab, see 1 Ki 16:30, 22:37–39).

Micah, like Amos before him, declares that punishment will come on the people in a time of deep darkness: “it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation; the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them” (2:6; cf. Amos 5:18–20). Because of the evil deeds of the heads and rulers, “Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (3:12).

In a future time of anger and wrath, says the prophet, God will wreak vengeance: “I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots; and I will cut off the cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds; and I will cut off sorceries from your hand, and you shall have no more soothsayers; and I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you” (5:10–15). The disdain with which the people have treated their covenant with the Lord, described in some detail here by the prophet, will merit this savage punishment.

The passage that appears in this Sunday’s lectionary offering thus provides the key to behaviour for the people of Israel in their situation of turmoil and upheaval. The prophet calls them back to fidelity to the covenant. His words stand also as a clarion call to people of faith in subsequent times who stand in the heritage and tradition of Micah: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”. May this be how we live!

Reading the prophetic texts during Advent (Isaiah 11; Advent 2A)

For much of the year, the lectionary presents us with a First Reading taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. (The exception is during Easter, when a reading from Acts stands as the First Reading.) I am regularly asked, “why has this reading been chosen?” In Epiphany and the “ordinary” season of the Sundays Epiphany after Pentecost, the reading is consecutive—or almost consecutive—following the narrative of a designated book, or set of books, in order. So there is not necessarily any obvious, or intentional, link between the Hebrew Scripture, Epistle, and Gospel readings.

For the seasons of Lent and Advent, however, the selection of each Sunday’s First Reading and Epistle is made with a deliberate intention to connect with the Gospel for that Sunday. So the way the lectionary is built itself includes a bias towards seeing the Gospel reading as the primary focus, and the other readings as feeding into that focus. Nevertheless, the immediate connection with the Gospel for this Sunday—an account of the fiery apocalyptic preaching of John the baptiser (Matt 3:1–12)—is not immediately evident.

The First Reading offered for this coming Sunday is an oracle from Isaiah (Isa 11:1–10, Advent 2A) in which a vision of universal harmony is expressed: “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid … the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (Isa 11:6–8).. It follows from the earlier reading last Sunday (Isa 2:1–5, Advent 1A) in which a similar vision is expressed: the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isa 2:4).

In last week’s passage, the peoples of the nations stream in to Jerusalem, where they ascend to “the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob”. There, in the Temple, they will receive instruction in “the ways of the Lord” so that they will “walk in his paths” (2:3). Presumably this instruction will come from the priests of the Temple, for they were the authority figures who would “teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek 44:23; see also Mal 2:7). In disputes between people where the understanding of the law is at stake, “they shall act as judges, and they shall decide it according to my judgments” (Ezek 44:24).

In this week’s passage, we are told of a promised figure, who will arise to lead the nations into that time of peace: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (11:1). That figure will exude “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (11:2); he will judge with tsedeqah, righteous-justice, and mishor, equity (11:4). The proposing of this promised figure is a significant development from the prophetic word we heard last week.

This “shoot” from Jesse will advocate for “the poor” and “the meek”, and stand firmly against “the wicked” (11:4). This is precisely the stance that the prophets had previously advocated (Amos 27; 4:1; 5:11; 8:4–6; Isa 3:14–15; 10:2; 25:4; 26:6; 29:19) and would subsequently express (Isa 41:17: 58:7; Jer 22:16; Ezek 18:11–13; 22:29–31; Zech 7:9–10). It is consistent with teachings in The Law about justice for the poor and punishment for the wicked.

This “shoot” will be girded with righteous-justice, for which the prophets have consistently advocated (Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Isa 1:22; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16–17; 54:14; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:19–29; Dan 9:24; 12:3; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–3; Hab 2:1–4). The “shoot” will also exhibit faithfulness, a quality that the prophets have valued (Hos 2:20; 4:1; 14:8; Isa 16:5), because its presence amongst the people reflects its centrality in God’s own nature (Isa 38:19; 65:16; Jer 31:3; 32:41; Zech 8:8).

Thus the “shoot from Jesse” will demonstrate two qualities that feature strongly in Hebrew Scriptures: fidelity to “the fear of the Lord” (11:3; see Job 28:28; Ps 19:9; 34:11; 111:10; Prov 1:7, 29; 9:10; 14:27; 15:33; 19:23; 23:17; Isa 33:6) and the “knowledge of the Lord” (11:9; see Gen 2:9, 17; Exod 31:3; 35:31; Num 24:16; Ps 94:10; 119:66; Prov 1:7; 2:5; 5:2; 8:10; 9:10; 10:14; Hos 6:6; Hab 2:14; Mal 2:7).

*****

This oracle thus sits firmly within the stream of prophetic speech about what God desires amongst the people of Israel, calling them to be faithful to the Law and walk in its oaths. Yet its presence in the Christian lectionary at this time of the year directs our attention to a way of reading it as a prophecy that foretells the coming of Jesus. Indeed, each of the Hebrew Scripture readings during Advent and at Christmas offer us a similar invitation to understand them as saying, “this is what the prophet of old said, and we can see that these words are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus”.

How are we to deal with this hermeneutical invitation, guiding us to interpret words spoken 800 years before Jesus as clear and direct statements about what Jesus himself will be like, and what he will do? I started pondering this question in my blog on last week’s passage from Isaiah; see https://johntsquires.com/2022/11/22/on-reading-scripture-during-advent-drawing-from-the-ancient-prophecies-isaiah-2-advent-1a/

After reading this blog, one person responded to me by quoting scripture and posing a rhetorical question that appears to resolve the matter. “‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, (Jesus) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ — Luke 24:27 As followers of Jesus, is this not our interpretation of the Bible?”

Well, yes. And, no. So, let me explain.

I think that we need to be careful in the way that we say that “this passage is about Jesus”. There is one way of saying this that drives us towards claiming that “when the prophet said these words, he was looking forward in the future to the coming of Jesus and predicting him”. That is to say, prophecy is understood as foretelling; looking into the distant future and predicting what God will be doing at that time. And so, these words are about Jesus.

I think that this way of reading texts actually does violence to them. It runs roughshod over the original context in which the words were spoken. It ignores, and perhaps even obliterates, the original context (in the time of Israel) for the sake of highlighting the later context (in the time of Jesus). And in the course of doing this, it actually wrenches the passage out of its earlier Israelite context—within the society that developed into Judaism—and forces it into a later Christian context.

This can actually lead to a form of supercessionism; a way of claiming that the Jewish texts, and the Jewish way of life and faith, are superceded by Christian faith and understanding; that Judaism is “old” and no longer relevant, because Christianity is “new” and now the way that God relates to us.

I don’t subscribe to this interpretive approach; Judaism is a living faith in its own right, with its own sacred texts. Those texts maintain an integrity in their own right, within that faith context, and should not be forced into a different, dogmatic Christian framework. My church does not hold to this way of reading things, either. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/

Nor do I subscribe to the notion that prophecy is always and only about foretelling. The ancient prophets were not just fixated on “what would happen with Jesus”. Prophecy may be about foretelling—and not always centuries into the future, but also about the time soon to come as the prophet spoke. But prophecy is also (and perhaps primarily) about forthtelling; speaking the word of God into the immediate context, addressing issues of concern in the political and social life of the people.

That is to say, prophecy is multilayered, multivalent, open to a range of interpretative options. It is not to be reduced to one line of sight, but should remain open to the richness of interpretive possibilities it offers.

Another person who respond to my blog said, “God can accomplish two things at once. He can send a prophet that speaks words that the people in a specific time and place need to hear, while at the same time those words can speak to us now.” Not exactly how I would say it; but I agree that any passage in scripture, and any communication from God, can indeed convey meanings at different levels of understanding.

(And one thing I have learnt from my years in dialogue with the Jewish community, representing my church in that dialogue, is that Jewish interpreters are open to a wide range of meanings, and the process of exploring those meanings raises questions and possibilities that invite even wider understandings!)

So I would say that Isaiah 11:1–10, and the other Hebrew Scripture texts offered during Advent, need, firstly, to be understood in their own right, in their original historical and religious context; but secondly, are able to be understood as setting out features which we find, much later, with the benefit of hindsight, are manifested by Jesus. In that sense, the ancient forthtelling for the society of the day also is capable of being understood as foretelling into the time of Jesus.

The prophet of old was looking for someone to act in ways that would be faithful to God’s way and helpful for society of the day, holding to the standard of righteous-justice that God desired. That way of acting is indeed the way that Jesus behaved; he was faithful to God’s way, demonstrating righteous-justice in his own actions, and calling his followers to live in accordance with that same righteous-justice. The words of the prophet tell us significant things about Jesus. But let’s not make it “all about Jesus”. It’s not.

On reading scripture during Advent: starting with the end (Matt 24; Advent 1A)

Last Sunday, we drew to a close the series of readings that we have been following from “the orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us”, for our weekly Gospel passages. This orderly account, offered to a person named “lover of God” (in Greek, Theophilus), we are told, was written so that this Theophilus might “know the certainty concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1–4).

In this narrative, Jesus has been positioned as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [the] people Israel” (2:32), through whom “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6). His final words to his followers charge them with proclaiming “repentance and forgiveness of sins … to all nations” (24:47)—indeed, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It’s the strongest biblical expression of the universal, scope of the Gospel.

Now we turn to the narrative entitled the origins of Jesus, chosen one, the son of David, the son of Abraham. This Gospel, by contrast, focuses intently on the Jewish origins of the Gospel. The opening chapters signal the Jewishness of Jesus (Matt 1:1), presents his Jewish genealogy (1:2–18), and locates him as the chosen ruler “who is to shepherd [God’s] people Israel” (2:6) and fulfil Isaiah’s words for “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” (4:16).

In this Gospel, Jesus affirms that he did not come “to abolish the law and the prophets”, but rather to fulfil them (5:17); he instructs his followers to “strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness” (6:33), is portrayed as one proclaiming justice (12:18–21), advocating what is central to the life of Israel—God’s justice and righteousness (Amos 5:24; Ps 33:4; 72:1–2; Prov 21:3; Isa 1:21; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16; Jer 22:3; 33:15).

In the Matthean narrative, Jesus becomes the teacher supreme, the sole instructor, of the people (23:8, 10); his final instructions to his followers are that they are to “teach all nations … to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). So this Gospel invites us (indeed, it leads us) into the heart of Jewish faith, for it is there that Jesus takes his stand, calling for repentance, the enacting of righteous-justice, through a deeper, more radical commitment to the covenant that Israel has with the Lord God. See

All of that lies ahead of us in the coming twelve months. Yet this Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, we start with a confronting word from the latter part of the story: “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left; two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (Matt 24:40–41). This striking declaration sits alongside exhortations to “keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42) and “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (24:44).

These exhortations are characteristic elements in apocalyptic literature of the time; and they crystallise the sense of an imminent catastrophic event which is set out in a longer speech which is vivid and explicit in its dramatic apocalyptic imagery (24:3–44). Immediately after these exhortations, Jesus tells a series of four parables (24:45–25:46) which further dramatise the message that “the end is near”, “you do not know when”, “make yourself ready”, “be prepared”.

The section offered by the lectionary for the first Sunday in Advent (24:36–44) seems a strange place to start a year of Matthean stories about Jesus. Why begin Advent with an apocalyptic passage? And yet, the injunctions of this passage seem to sit neatly with the opening words of Jesus in this Gospel: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). See

These words echo exactly the message of John the baptiser (3:2) and point forward also to the demands that Jesus makes throughout his public ministry, culminating in the calls to “keep awake” and “be ready”, because “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”. The opening message of Jesus is clearly echoed in this later apocalyptic speech.

David Cassian Cole is the founder and executive director of Waymark Ministries CIC. He is known as Brother Cassian. He writes about a custom in the early centuries of the Celtic church, for Advent to stretch for 40 days (mirroring Lent, the 40 days of preparation prior to Easter).

Cole writes, “It is believed that the 40 days of Advent were split into three sections, colloquially termed the three comings of Christ. The first is the incarnation, what we all focus upon at this time of year; the second is Christ coming into our lives; the third is the coming of Christ at the end of all things, as depicted in the book of Revelation. The third coming of Christ is that which comes at the end of all things, and through this period the Celtic Christians examine their own lives, not in a self-judgmental way, but in a positive self-reflection to see whether they are ready and prepared, in the way they are living, for Christ to return at any moment.” See more at

So we are offered these words from the final long sermon of Jesus as the introduction to the year of Matthew: a reminder of the claim that God holds authority of the creation as the one who will determine “the time”, and that “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (24:36), a call to “keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42), an exhortation to “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (24:44).

Those phrases set forth the attitude that is required, in being open to the coming of Jesus—an attitude that is quite appropriate for Advent, that is essential for personal faith in Jesus, and that is fitting for the whole year of reading and pondering stories about Jesus, in this “book of origins”.

God calls all Christians to be peacemakers

Today there is one of those regular reminders that occur in social media, about remembering war—the victims of war, those who have died, the consequences of armed struggle.

It is a good day to remember, also, that the Gospel is a call to peacemaking and reconciliation. This is at the heart of the commitments that the Uniting Church in Australia, amongst many other churches, has made over the decades.

At the Tenth Assembly in 2003, the Uniting Church affirmed “that God came in the crucified and risen Christ to make peace; and that God calls all Christians to be peacemakers, to save life, to heal and to love their neighbours; and that the Church is committed to be a peacemaking body”. (Uniting for Peace, Tenth Assembly, Uniting Church in Australia) A number of the UCA statements and resources relating to peacemaking are collected at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace

Peacemaking has been a central concern of the Uniting Church since its inception in 1977. As early as 1982, the Assembly made a major statement on peacemaking, with two clear declarations: first, that “God came in the crucified and risen Christ to make peace [and] He calls all Christians to be peacemakers, to save life, to heal and to love their neighbours”; and second, that “the call of Christ to make peace is the norm, the onus of proof rests on any who resort to military force as a means of solving international disputes” (Militarism and Disarmament, 1982).

In 1988, in a Statement to the Nation issued for the Australian Bicentennial, the church declared, “In cooperation with all fellow Australians of goodwill, we are committed to work for justice and peace, calling for honesty and integrity, encouraging tolerance and compassion, challenging acquisitiveness and greed, opposing discrimination and prejudice, condemning violence and oppression and creating a loving and caring community”.

At that same Assembly, a statement on Nuclear Deterrence, Disarmament and Peace was also issued, with the statement that “All Christian affirmation about peace is grounded in the declaration that Jesus Christ is our peace. Through him the power of evil, sin and death is decisively broken, and the hostile and alienated world is reconciled to God and is itself renewed. We speak in hope, trusting God’s promise of the final transformation of all things.”

In 2003 the Assembly adopted an extensive statement entitled Uniting for Peace. In this statement the Uniting Church promised to “work together for peace, justice and reconciliation at the local, national and global level and in collaboration with local communities, secular movements, non- government agencies and people of other faiths”. We declared that we embraced “creative approaches to peacebuilding which are consonant with the spirit of the Gospel” and that we sought to “empower people who are systematically oppressed by violence, and to act in solidarity with those struggling for justice, peace and the integrity of creation”. The Statement also indicated an intention to “repent of our complicity in violence and attempt to overcome the spirit, logic and practice of violence”.

For the International Day of Peace in 2016, the church issued a resource which explored three important “Building Blocks for Peace— gender equality, climate justice, and nuclear disarmament”. See https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/images/stories/PDFs/160909_Peace_IDPResource2016.pdf

Continuing this commitment to peace today is important. One member of the Uniting Church, Len Baglow, has written this helpful piece on making peace, in which he gives serious consideration to a difficult question: “what does it mean in our time to be a peacemaker?” He indicates that he writes “to encourage others to join in this adventure that scripture calls peacemaking. I would particularly urge leaders in the Church community to see peacemaking not as a peripheral activity, but something which is urgent for our times.”

See https://ucforum.unitingchurch.org.au/?p=4660

Len notes that IPAN, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network, is planning a national conference later this month, at which there will be consideration of AUKUS and the current threat of war for Australia, as well as sessions on “building the peace movement: planning collaborative activism”. The details of the programme and registration are at

Continuing the commitment to making peace that Jesus articulated is an integral and important part of Christian discipleship in the contemporary world. May the resolutions of this conference and the networks that it builds contribute to the ongoing work of making peace and forming reconciliation in our fractured world.

See also

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right (2 Thess 2 and 3; Pentecost 22C and 23C)

The closing words in the passage from 2 Thessalonians that appear in this Sunday’s lectionary offerings (2 Thess 3:6–13) exhort the believers in Thessaloniki to “do what is right”. It concludes a section telling them not to be idle, but to “do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:12), which itself has picked up the direction given in the earlier letter to Thessaloniki, “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11–12).

This could well be another instance in 2 Thess where a later writer, a follower of Paul, has mined the earlier letter of 1 Thess, authentic to Paul, to shape a letter drawing on the apostle’s authority to reinforce teachings for his own time. A clear way in which the letter deviates from Paul’s authentic thought is its apocalyptic content.

Paul himself (like Jesus) did have an apocalyptic view of the world. He affirms that “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), “the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom 13:12), and looks to the coming “day of the Lord” (1 Cor 1:8; Phil 1:10; 1 Thess 5:2), the “the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:13).

He foresees that “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:52) and asserts that “the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:16–17).

However, this letter develops from those views in ways most uncharacteristic of Paul—more like the kind of hardline developments that we find in Jewish apocalypses of the general time. The “righteous judgment of God” (2 Thess 1:5) will be “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (1:7–8), bringing “the punishment of eternal destruction” (1:9). This is an extreme position, beyond the hope for a return of Jesus to reconcile believers with God; this presses the notion of divine judgement into callous retribution.

Further consideration of that day of judgement is given in chapter 2; we had excerpts from this chapter in last week’s lectionary—but the critical verses, 2:6–12, were omitted in that offering! There, we read that this day “will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction” (2:3). The Greek word translated as “rebellion” is apostasies, from which we get apostasy. It was used to describe those who wandered from the keeping of the Torah (1 Mac 2:15).

The writer continues, declaring that “the lawless one” (2:8) who brings “a powerful delusion” (2:11) will result in “all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned” (2:12). This portrayal resonates strongly with scenes in Jewish apocalyptic literature of the late Second Temple period, or soon thereafter, attributed to (but not actually written by) great luminaries in the history of Israel; see 4 Ezra 4:27–5:13; 2 Baruch 27; 1 Enoch 91; and also, in the Dea Sea Scrolls, 1QpHab 2:1–10.

On other ways that the letter indicates a later, non-Pauline authorship which goes well beyond Paul’s thinking—see

*****

To return to chapter 3; here we find a set of instructions, buttressed by Paul’s authority, in which the Thessalonians are encouraged to maintain “the tradition” they received from Paul (3:6), the “command” which he had given them (3:10), and are admonished to “have nothing to do with … those who do not obey what we say in this letter” (3:14).

A key verse in this section (3:13) draws strongly on a theme running through Hebrew Scripture, to “not be weary in doing what is right”. The Psalmist, for instance, sings that those who may abide on God’s holy hill are “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart” (Ps 15:2), and in a later psalm, sings that “I have done what is just and right; do not leave me to my oppressors” (Ps 119:131). Yet another psalm questions the gods: “do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? do you judge people fairly?” and immediately provides the answer, “no, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth” (Ps 58:1–2). The alignment of doing what is right with the Lord God of Israel is clear.

Accordingly, that deity is depicted in some of the foundational stories of Israel as requiring people to do what is right. At Marah in the wilderness, the Lord God tells the people, “if you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exod 15:26).

Likewise, when reminding the people “not to put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (referring to Exod 17:1–7), Moses instructs them to “do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you” (Deut 6:18). That message is reinforced later in the long speech of Moses, when he gives instructions relating to the discovery of a murder whose perpetrator is unknown, concluding that “you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the Lord” (Deut 21:9).

The same instruction that is attributed to Moses is given by the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite, when Jeroboam led a rebellion against King Solomon: “if you will listen to all that I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you an enduring house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you” (1 Kings 11:38). The equation of “doing what is right “ with “keeping [God’s] statutes and commandments” in this passage, as also in the account of the incident at Marah (Exod 15:26), indicates the centrality of this command within the life of Israel.

Two prophets reinforce the importance of this command. Ezekiel declares that, “if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die” (Ezek 18:21; see also 18:27; 33:14, 19; 45:9). Likewise, the opening oracle of the unnamed post-exiled prophet whose words are collected at the end of the scroll of Isaiah begins with the declaration, “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). This important text equates “do what is right” with divine justice; the two prophetic texts indicate that “doing what is right” is the prerequisite for life (Ezekiel) and salvation (Trito-Isaiah).

Finally, we note that the story of Tobit ends with his prayer of blessing to God (Tob 13:1–17), including the admonition, “turn back, you sinners, and do what is right before him; perhaps he may look with favor upon you and show you mercy” (Tob 13:6); followed by his farewell words to his son, Tobias, and the seven sons of Tobias, in which he declares, “so now, my children, I command you, serve God faithfully and do what is pleasing in his sight; your children are also to be commanded to do what is right and to give alms, and to be mindful of God and to bless his name at all times with sincerity and with all their strengths (Tob 14:9). This final passage explains that “doing what is right” includes both central religious activities (bless God) and helpful social activities (give alms).

To Jewish listeners, the simple instruction, “do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thess 3:13) evokes central aspects of faith: obedience, following God’s way, keeping the commandments, speaking the right words, enacting the required behaviours, receiving the gift of life, being assured of salvation, and doing justice. Beyond the authority of Paul, reinforced a number of times in this chapter, the resonances of Hebrew Scripture voices sound loudly.

New heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65; Pentecost 23C)

The Hebrew Scripture passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday comes from the third main section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66). This section of the book differs from the two main sections that precede it—the pre-exilic section (chapters 1–39) and the section as the exile itself is drawing to an end (chapters 40–55).

The prophet begins this third section with a familiar prophetic announcement which sets forth the classic prophetic programme, with the classic divine assurance: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). The section offered by the lectionary (Isa 65:17–25) sets out how that justice will come to be, through the vision of “new heavens and a new earth”.

Written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE), this section of Isaiah sets out what this justice will look like through a series of powerful oracles. The prophet sounds a vivid counter-cultural note in the midst of the events of his time. He begins with the promise to foreigners and eunuchs that “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:5).

This is a striking contrast to the narrative provided in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which tell of the return to the city, the rebuilding of the walls, the renewal of the covenant and the public reading of the Law, the rededication of the Temple—and actions designed to remove foreigners (especially women) from within Israel (see Ezra 10; Neh 13).

Ezra and Nehemiah exhibited a zealous fervour to restore the Law to its central place in the life of Israel. Ezra, learning that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2), worked with “the elders and judges of every town” to determine who had married foreign women; the men identified “pledged themselves to send away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt” (Ezra 10:19). (So much for the importance of families!)

Nehemiah considered that this project to “cleanse [the people] from everything foreign” (Neh 13:30) was in adherence to the command that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them” (Neh 13:1–2; see Num 22—24). The restoration of Israel as a holy nation meant that foreigners would be barred from the nation.

The oracle at the start of the third section of Isaiah stands in direct opposition to this point of view; “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:6–7). This is what God’s justice looks like!

Jesus, of course, quoted this last phrase (“a house of prayer for all people”) in the action he undertook in the outer court of the Temple (Mark 11:17). Later, the welcome offered to the Ethiopian court official by Philip, who talked with him about scripture and baptised him, a eunuch (Acts 8:26–38), is consistent with the prophetic words, “to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:4–5).

From the earliest days, the church practised an inclusive welcoming of diversity that was consistent with this prophetic declaration. What went wrong, we may ponder, for the church to dig itself into the corner of exclusivism and judgementalism that unfortunately has characterised too many manifestation of church?

The particular passage that is provided for this coming Sunday is almost at the end of the book. It offers a wonderfully climactic vision to this section of the book—and indeed to the whole of Isaiah. The prophet has continued to explain what it means to adhere to the way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires.

The promise is that Israel will have a new name: “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isa 62:4). We can see the symbolic significance of names in considering the prophet Hosea and in Isaiah 8, for example.

By contrast, vengeance will be the experience of Edom; using the image of trampling down the grapes in the wine press, the prophet reports the intention of God: “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (63:1–6). So vigorously does God undertake this task, that he is attired in “garments stained crimson” because “their juice spattered on my garments and stained all my robes” (63:1–3).

Once again, the prophet speaks in graphic terms. Edom is a symbolic portrayal of the Babylonian Empire, which had been dominant in the middle eastern world of the day for some time—yet it had recently been subsumed by the Persian Empire (under whom the people of Judah were able to return home). The punishment was on the horizon, either the horizon immediately in view, or the horizon that had just passed. Edom (Babylon) had been conquered—a happening interpreted by the anonymous prophet as divine retribution.

Confronted with this display of wrath and vengeance, the prophet adopts an attitude of penitence, yearning for God to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). His plea for the Lord to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1–2) must surely have been in the mind of the evangelists as the reported the baptism of Jesus, when he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The book ends with a sequence in which the prophet reports the words of the Lord which indicate that Israel will be restored (65:1–16), followed by the statement that the Lord is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17–25; 66:22–23)—the passage provided by the lectionary this week. It is a wonderfully climactic, all-encompassing vision. Not only will Jerusalem enjoy prosperity, but “the wealth of the nations [shall be] like an overflowing stream” (66:12).

The vision of this penultimate chapter is global; it is for “all people” (picking up the hope of Isa 40:5), for “all the nations of the earth”, as both Jeremiah (Jer 33:9) and Haggai foresee (Hag 2:6–9), for “all flesh” as Joel predicts (Joel 2:28–29), for “every living creature”, as the final vision of Ezekiel portrays (Ezek 47:7–12). The “new heavens and new earth” (Isa 65:17) are for everyone of Israel (Isa 65:18–19), indeed, even for all creatures, “wolf and lamb, lion and ox” (Isa 65:25).

This vision is, of course, taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). That provides a globally wondrous vision to end the writings of the renewed covenant. The closing vision of Trito-Isaiah, the foundation for the vision of the seer at Patmos, has incorporated a number of references to earlier prophetic words: building houses and planting vineyards (65:21) recalls the words of Jeremiah (Jer 29:5–7); the image of wolves lying with lambs and lions “eating straw like the ox” recalls the vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:6–7).

The promise that “they shall not hurt or destroy all on my holy mountain” (65:25) recalls that same vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:9), whilst the next promise about not labouring in vain nor bearing children for calamity (65:23) reverses the curse of Gen 3:16–19. The story of creation from the beginning of Genesis is evoked when the Lord asserts that “heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool … all these things my hand has made” (66:1–2); these are the words which Stephen will quote back to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 7:48–50) and will lead to his death at their hands. All the allusions together make this a fine conclusion to the visionary prophetic stream of the first covenant.

And yet, even to the very end of this book, the judgement of the Lord is evident; the prophet declares that “the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire; for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (66:15–16).

Nevertheless, the glory of the Lord shall be declared “among the nations” (66:19) and “they shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord” (66:20). The universalising inclusivism that was sounded in the oracle at the start of this prophet’s work (in chapter 56) is maintained through into this closing oracle. In “the new heavens and the new earth which I will make … all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (66:22–23). The vision lives strong! It’s a good way to end the series of readings from the prophets we have followed during the past few months.