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!

God of all the tribes and nations

This prayer was written by my friend and colleague Janet Dawson a couple of years ago. This year, on the Day of Mourning (22 January) prior to Australia Day, it was offered in prayer during morning worship at Port Macquarie Uniting Church, on Biripi land, in New South Wales. It is fitting for our consideration on this day, remembered by First Peoples as Invasion Day.

God of all the tribes and nations of the earth,

I give you thanks for Australia’s First Peoples.

I have so much to learn from them.

All my life I have been a wanderer upon the face of the earth.

I struggle to understand a sense of bone deep connection with the land,

of having been with the land for tens of thousands of years,

of being one with the land.

I struggle with it.

I yearn for it.

Yet even as I yearn,

I glimpse the pain that comes from separation.

I do not know what is like to be torn from your country,

Your roots,

Your culture,

Your language,

Your family,

Your self.

How many of us turn our eyes away because the pain is too great?

God, forgive us, and give us the strength to turn around, and see.

Strength.

With deepest respect I give thanks for the strength of Australia’s First Peoples.

They have survived.

Against all the odds, against all the good and bad intentions,

They have survived.

But not all.

And not all who are alive today are whole,

Many have lost too much.

God, forgive us for what we have done,

For what we continue to do.

I pray for the continued resurgence of First Peoples’ culture, language and pride.

Named or unnamed,

You are their strength,

You are their inspiration,

You are in their Law,

You sing in their Dreaming.

And out of my own small circle of experience,

I give thanks for the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress,

Their insightful theology,

Their inspiring worship,

Their bright and beautiful young leaders.

May they continue to enrich and heal their peoples.

May they continue to be a gift and inspiration to the whole church.

God of all the tribes and nations of the earth,

I give you thanks for Australia’s First Peoples.

Amen.

Teaching the disciples (Matt 5; Epiphany 4A)

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him; then he began to speak, and taught them” (Matt 5:1). These verses introduce the famous “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s book of origins, and lead immediately into the Beatitudes, a series of blessings in which Jesus explains what is involved in “the kingdom of heaven”, which is the centre of his message (4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19–20).

On those Beatitudes, see

The author of this narrative knows very well the traditional rabbinic methods of teaching which were consistently employed by Jesus—he collects parables and pithy sayings, reports his dialogical debates and midrashic expositions, and shapes the whole “book of origins” so that, through its five collated teaching blocks, it evokes the five books of the Law of Moses—the “books of origins” of the people Israel. Jesus is presented as the Rabbi (Teacher) par excellence, the new Moses for the people of his time.

These five blocks of teaching provide an extensive catechisms for the disciples who travelled with Jesus throughout Galilee. We should remember that these disciples included more than “the twelve apostles” of later Christian tradition—Matthew himself notes that “many women … had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him”, and identifies “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” amongst them (Matt 27:55–56).

However, this group of followers is representative for the larger group of people who had begun to follow Jesus in the years since the events reported in the Gospel. The work was compiled in order to provide a catechetical foundation for those later followers—through even to our own times, many centuries later.

These five teaching blocks canvass ethical imperatives (5:1–7:29), missional guidelines (10:5–11:1), parables of the kingdom (13:1–53), relationships within the community of faith (18:1–19:1), and apocalyptic predictions about the coming kingdom along with strengthened indications of what righteousness is required in that kingdom (23:1–26:2). These teachings are demanding and comprehensive.

Who compiled this teaching Gospel? Within ecclesial tradition, the author is identified as Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus. There is absolutely no hint that he was schooled in the intricacies of Torah interpretation. In that tradition, Matthew was appointed as an apostle, and later wrote an eye-witness account of the time he spent with Jesus. It’s a point of view that I don’t personally adhere to.

Within biblical scholarship, Matthew is recognised simply as a character who appears briefly in the story told by the first Gospel in the New Testament. He is identified in one short verse narrating his call by Jesus (Matt 9:9). He is also included in the list of twelve who were called to be apostles, with the added descriptor, “the tax collector” (Matt 10:3). He is also named in three other books, with nothing further said about him (Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; and Acts 1:13). But little else about him is conveyed in the four books that name him.

On the authorship of the Gospels, see

Those five fleeting references are the only times we see directly this person in the biblical narratives. He is surely there in other scenes, but he simply blends into the collection of “the disciples” (Mark 2:23; 3:7; 5:31: 6:1, 35, 41, 45; 7:17; 8:1–10, 14, 27, 34: 9:14, 28, 31; 10:10, 13, 23–24; 11:19; 12:43; 13:1; 14:12–16; and Synoptic parallels), “the twelve” (Mark 4:10; 6:7; 9:35; 14:20; and Synoptic parallels; and John 6:66–71; 20:24), or, even more anonymously, into “the crowd” (Mark 2:4, 13; 4:1; Matt 7:28; 13:2; Luke 5:1; 6:17; 7:11–12; 8:4; John 6:2; 12:9, 12; Acts 1:15; 2:6; etc.).

And yet, in the evolving church traditions, Matthew emerges from the shadows to take centre stage as disciple, apostle, saint, and author of the Gospel which is placed first in the New Testament. Some churches even maintain the patristic claim that Matthew wrote in Aramaic, and was later translated into the Greek version that forms the basis of the New Testament text.

The claim about Aramaic comes from a fourth century report by Eusebius of Caesarea that a second century bishop, Papias of Heirapolis, claimed that Matthew “put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language (Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ), but each person interpreted them as best he could” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16). We should note that this is a somewhat indirect witness at quite some remove, and also that the Greek word Ἑβραΐδι can be translated either as Hebrew or as Aramaic.

But this claim falls down from the clear evidence of the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, which mirrors very closely both the Gospel of Mark, at many points, and the Gospel of Luke, at other points, in passages found only in Matthew and Luke. The two key conclusions drawn by many scholars are twofold: first, that Matthew (like Luke) used the Gospel of Mark as a basis for writing a narrative about Jesus—but modified and adapted both the order and wording of passages; and second, that Luke and Matthew had access to another source (whether oral or written) for many of the sayings of Jesus (the source is known as Q). This makes it completely unlikely that Matthew wrote, in Aramaic, or in Hebrew, the earliest account of Jesus.

And ascribing the authorship of this Gospel to the tax collector identified at Matt 9:9 is also a patristic move. The title of this (and the other) Gospels, identifying the alleged author, is found only in later manuscripts and patristic writings; the narrative itself fails to identify anyone as the author, let alone the tax collector named Matthew. This claim is a later apologetic move, most likely made to provide an “apostolic authorisation” to the Gospel.

See

So what do we say, then, of “Matthew”, the purported author of this Gospel, a work which the author declares at the start to be “the book of origins of Jesus, Messiah” (Matt 1:1)? For me, a key to the way that the author of this “book of origins” operated is provided at Matt 13:52, where Jesus concludes a sequence of parables with the statement that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old”.

That description encapsulates very clearly, for me, who the author of this Gospel was—a scribe, “trained for the kingdom”, drawing on old resources, but reshaping them so that they are seen to be new. We can see this in many ways in the narrative that he constructs. We can especially see this in the way he presents Jesus as an authoritative teacher of Torah—the one whose words are to be heard, remembered, studied, and passed on. (Thus, the reason for his writing of this Gospel.) It’s a point of view that undergirds the way that I interpret the various Gospel selections that the lectionary offers in this coming year, in which Jesus gathers his disciples, speaks to them, and teaches them.

The paradox of “the word of the cross” in Corinth (1 Cor 1; Epiphany 4A)

The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. This is the thesis that Paul and Sosthenes propose near the start of their lengthy letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2), and also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). And as we have already noted, “the word of the cross” features prominently in the authentic letters of Paul.

The thesis is stated in a rhetorically balanced, theologically incisive two-part statement, the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1:18). The claim is worked out in the first two chapters of the letter, in passages that we will hear this week (1 Cor 1:18–31) and then next week (2:1–12). It then serves as the basis for much of the ethical and theological discussion that follows in later chapters of the letter.

In the two passages currently in view, Sosthenes and Paul remind the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23), that they “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), and that the paradoxical wisdom that is at the heart of the story of Jesus, “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

The rhetorical structuring of this paradoxical argument is evident throughout the whole of the passage that the lectionary offers for this Sunday (1:18–31). There is a neat symmetry of clauses in each verse of the passage, with frequent use of balancing subsidiary phrases continuing the symmetrical structure. I’ve attempted to show this schematically as follows:

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To begin, Sosthenes and Paul ground their argument in prophetic declarations drawn from the Hebrew scriptures—in fact, explicit citations bookmark their argument at 1:19 (quoting Isaiah) and 1:31 (quoting Jeremiah). This is typical of rabbinic literature, where an initial citation (a subsidiary text) begins an argument, and then the primary text for the matter being addressed concludes the argument. This was the fourth of Rabbi Hillel’s seven principles for scripture interpretation (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 37).

So there should be no surprise that we find such a technique employed in a letter written by Sosthenes, a leader of the synagogue (the place where scripture interpretation was taught and debates about scripture flourished), and Paul, trained as a Pharisee (at the feet of Gamaliel, if Acts 22:3 reflects historical reality) and well-versed in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Phil 3:5; Rom 7:12, 22). As Jews immersed in the knowledge of Torah and the application of scripture to daily life, this way of speaking and writing was second nature to them.

After stating their thesis (1:18), Sosthenes and Paul cited the prophet Isaiah in support (Isa 29:14). In the typical rabbinic fashion of arguing a point, this first quotation is the subsidiary text for their argument. The words come from an oracle that the prophet delivers when Israel and Judah had been invaded by the Assyrian power to the north (2 Kings 17–19). This invasion of 721 BCE is characterised by Isaiah as an expression of God’s judgement (Isa 28:21–22). The northern kingdom had been conquered (2 Kings 17) and the southern kingdom was invaded (2 Kings 18). Two decades later, under Sennacherib, the city of Jerusalem itself was under siege (Isa 29:1–3). Ultimately Sennacherib withdrew his army back to Nineveh and was killed by his sons (2 Kings 19:36–37).

Whilst the experience of the people in the besieged city of Jerusalem was one of “moaning and lamentation” (Isa 29:2), the prophet presses the claim that this is brought about by God himself: “the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers” (Isa 29:10). This, the prophet insists, “comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom” (Isa 28:29).

Because the people claim allegiance to God but fail to live according to the covenant they have made with God—“their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isa 29:13)–God’s intervention through the Assyrian encirclement of Jerusalem will mean that “the wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden” (Isa 29:14). Eventually, through this intense hardship, “those who err in spirit will come to understanding, and those who grumble will accept instruction” (Isa 29:24).

It is this message of the paradoxical inversion of the widely-accepted wisdom by divine intervention that the apostle and his co-author draw on, when they remind the Corinthians of God’s way: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Cor 1:19, quoting Isa 29:14b).

*****

In developing their argument in the following verses, Sosthenes and Paul explain this inversion to the Corinthians in three compact sequences. First, they pose a series of three rhetorical questions ending with a fourth question that expounds the paradoxical nature of how God acts:

The implied answer, of course, is “yes”.

Then follows a doublet with matching halves (wisdom of God, wisdom of the world; foolishness, salvation):

The pattern of wisdom-wisdom, folly-?? is broken with the declaration of salvation for believers; this is what “God decided”.

The third sequence contrasts Jews with Greeks (that is, Gentiles) but then places both of them in contrast to the proclamation of “Christ crucified”. The word of the cross functions as the definitive marker; this is the pivot on which the section turns.

The word of the cross—the proclamation of “Christ crucified”—might be understood as a stumbling block and a folly, but is actually a demonstration of divine power and wisdom. It is in the cross that the age-old dynamic of how God works is seen: it is an upheaval, a reversal, an overturning of received wisdom—just as Isaiah had been proclaiming to his fellow Judahites eight centuries earlier.

The conclusion is made clear in a punchy doublet in parallel paradox:

*****

In what follows next, attention turns to the actual community of believers in Corinth. The letter writers invite the believers in Corinth to “consider your own call, brothers and sisters”, followed by two triplets of rhetorically powerful statements:

That few were wise, powerful, or born as nobles in Corinth should come as no surprise. Certainly, a number of high-status names are mentioned in the letter (Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Acaicus at 16:17; and perhaps Chloe, if “Chloe’s people” at 1:11 are her servants), and other letters demonstrate a similar presence of high-status people, such as those who host “the church in the house of” Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3), as well as a number of those mentioned in the string of names in Rom 16:3–16.

However, later in the letter we learn that when the community of believers comes together, some enjoy a rich meal and get drunk, while others starve (1 Cor 11:21). The condemnation is on those who “humiliate those who have nothing” (11:22); they are instructed, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33). Here, as in a number of other places in the letter, the teaching is given that all members of the community are to be regarded as equal, for “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).

Indeed, in the second century, Pliny would describe Christians as being “of every age, of every rank, of both sexes” and “not only in the towns, but also in the villages and farms” (Pliny, Epist. 10.96.9). And social-scientific commentators on the early Jesus movement have published careful analyses that support the notion that early Christian communities contained a cross-section of society (see Gerd Thiessen, The First Followers of Jesus, on the rural origins of the movement, and Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians, on its consolidation in the cities of the Roman Empire).

So in the rhetorically powerful argument of 1:18–31, God’s paradoxical choice is emphasised; God chose fools, weaklings, and lowly despised people, not wise, powerful, noble-born. In the second triplet, the final affirmation is extended with another rhetorical intensifier, reinforcing “the wisdom from God” with three additional theological claims (righteousness, sanctification, and redemption).

*****

At the end of the argument, in typical rabbinic style, a closing citation clinches the case, with words from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 9:23–24): “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:31). This is the primary scripture passage which undergirds the argument that commenced in 1 Cor 1:19 with the citation of the subsidiary passage from Isaiah.

Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37). King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE and pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Kings 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile. He was sent into exile in Egypt (Jer 43:1–8), even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements. That is certainly the case for the long oracle from which the one-line quotation at 1 Cor 1:31 is drawn.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick”, the prophet laments (Jer 8:18), posing a question that has come into popular speech in later times: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer 8:22).

Jeremiah warns of the coming devastation that the Babylonians will bring, framing it as God’s righteous judgement: “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals; and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 9:11). Accordingly, the prophet poses the question, “who is wise enough to understand this?” (Jer 9:12), calls for the people to mourn (Jer 9:17–23), and advises them that the Lord declares, “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jer 9:23–24).

This is the declaration from which Sosthenes and Paul take the one line to draw the argument to a close, pressing the paradoxical way by which God overturns the power of the world and inverts the wisdom of the world. There can be no boasting in human wisdom. Trust can only be placed in the wisdom of God, which has its own logic and distinctive purpose. Boasting is feasible only in this context: “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:31). That is what “the word of the cross” is, to the believers in Corinth–and to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

*****

A Day of Mourning, ahead of Invasion Day (26 January)

Since 2019 the Uniting Church has marked a Day of Mourning to reflect on the dispossession of Australia’s First Peoples and the ongoing injustices faced by First Nations people in this land. For those of us who are Second Peoples from many lands, we lament that we were and remain complicit.

The observance of a Day of Mourning on the Sunday before 26 January arises from a request from the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) which was endorsed by the 15th Assembly in 2018. Since then, many Congregations have held worship services that reflect on the effects of invasion, colonisation and racism on First Peoples. This year, that will take place on 22 January.

The Uniting Church acknowledges that our predecessors in the denominations which joined in 1977 to form the Uniting Church have been “complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land”. That itself is a cause for lament and mourning.

The Uniting Church also recognises that people in these churches “were largely silent as the dominant culture of Australia constructed and propagated a distorted version of history that denied this land was occupied, utilised, cultivated and harvested by these First Peoples who also had complex systems of trade and inter-relationships”.

The quotations above come from the Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church in Australia, adopted in 2009, which can be read in full at https://resources.uca.org.au/images/stories/Regulations/2018/2018_Constitution__Regulations.pdf

Resources prepared for worship on 22 January 2023 include a statement by the Rev. Sharon Hollis, President of the UCA, and the Rev. Mark Kickett, the Interim National Chair Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. In this statement, they observe that “The Day of Mourning invites us to listen to the truth of the effects of colonisation and racism on First Peoples and to hope that in confronting this truth we will discover ways to create communities of justice and healing.”

They continue, “In marking the Day of Mourning, we live into our covenant relationship to stand together with, and listen to, the wisdom of First Nations people in their struggle for justice. We affirm the sovereignty of First Peoples and honour their culture and their connection to country.”

This quotation, and others following, come from https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Day-of-Mourning-2023_finalmin.pdf

The covenant referred to by the President and the Interim Congress Chair was made by the National Assembly in 1994. It signals the Uniting Church’s commitment to stand with our First Nations brothers and sisters in Christ in their struggle for justice. The story of entering into this relationship with First Peoples and ongoing developments that have occurred since 1994 is told at https://uniting.church/covenanting/

The Uniting Church is firmly committed to Giving Voice, Telling Truth, Talking Treaty, which was the theme of the 2019 NAIDOC WEEK, picking up from the 2017 Statement from the Heart. This theme was the focus of a consensus decision of the 2019 meeting of the Synod of NSW and the ACT, to enact a series of proposals to give support to the theme of Giving Voice, Telling Truth, Talking Treaty; see

The Synod now has a comprehensive Reconciliation Action Plan and a webpage with links to many resources to support this commitment; see https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources

The 2023 worship resources invite worshippers to begin with an Acknowledgement of First Peoples which draws from the Revised Preamble, affirming that “God nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country, the Aboriginal and Islander peoples” and that “the Spirit was already in the land, revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony”. The Acknowledgement invites worshippers to respond by affirming that they “honour [First Peoples] for their custodianship of the land on which we gather today” and that they “rejoice the reconciling purposes of God found in the good news about Jesus Christ”.

These are fundamental theological affirmations which undergird both our present respect for First Peoples, and our understanding that a relationship with and an understanding of God are not limited to western Christian perceptions of the divine. Indeed, as we have accepted within Christianity that the God we know in Jesus was active in relationship with human beings for many centuries before the time of Jesus—through the covenant with the people of Israel—so we can agree that God was in relationship with the peoples of the continent we call Australia and the islands which surround it.

The worship resources include an Invitation to Truth-Telling—something that is now recognised as integral to the process of reconciliation that is essential within Australian society. In words written by Alison Overeem, Manager of Leprena—UAICC in Tasmania: “We are called to justice in the mourning, not just for today but all that weeps from today. All that sits in the layers of mourning, embedded in the trail of injustice … of removal … of dispossession … of stolen land … of stolen children … of stolen identity”. The Invitation continues by encouraging us, “in the mourning, let us look to the love that calls us to seek out and speak out against injustice”.

That truth-telling was at the heart of decisions at the 2015 Assembly, to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and at the 2018 Assembly, to recognise the sovereignty of the First Peoples. See

A Prayer of Lament in the worship resources recognises “the way in which their land was taken from them and their language, culture, law and spirituality despised and suppressed”, and laments “the way in which the Christian church was so often not only complicit in this process but actively involved in it”.

The Prayers of the People begins with the petition, “give us the courage to accept the realities of our history so that we may build a better future for our nation”—for that is the purpose of the Day of Mourning, of the annual Reconciliation Week, and of the ongoing commitment of the Uniting Church to “live out the covenant into which we, the First and Second Peoples of this land, have entered with one another.”

The closing Word of Mission in the 2023 worship resources continues: “Confront and challenge injustice wherever you see it. Act justly yourselves and insist that others do the same. Rejoice in the richness of our diverse cultures and learn from them. Celebrate and demonstrate the unity we share in Jesus our Lord. Commit to worship, witness and serve as one people under God, Until God’s promised reconciliation of all creation is complete.”

The resource ends with links to appropriate contemporary songs and children’s stories, and suggestions for craft activities within worship on 22 January.

See also

Teaching in “their synagogues” (Matt 4; Epiphany 3A)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matt 4:23). So we hear at the end of the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday.

This verse contains a very significant statement, when it refers to “their synagogues”. It is the passing reference, a seemingly fleeting, yet quite significant, reference to “their synagogues”. Not “our synagogues”, not even “the synagogues”, but “their synagogues” (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 10:17). There is a note of tension in this description; perhaps a hint of a conflict simmering between “our synagogues” and “their synagogues”?

In fact, the third of these texts (Matt 10:17) equates those who were flogging disciples in “their synagogues” as “wolves”—perhaps harking back to the prophetic denunciations of priests (Ezek 22:23–27), judges (Zeph 3:1–5), and Chaldeans (Hab 1:6–11). We might also note the devastating depiction of Benjamin as “a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, and at evening dividing the spoil” (Gen 49:27). That is how “their synagogues” are depicted in Matthew’s book of origins.

Synagogues were the places in towns and villages throughout Judea and Galilee where the Torah was taught, through memorisation, debate, and discussion. These debates about Torah in synagogues across the land took on an intensified form after 70 CE. The survival of Judaism without the Temple depended on the faithful practice of the Torah: all of its commandments and instructions were there to shape a whole way of life for the people, to maintain the covenant that their ancestors had entered into with the Lord God. So there was much debate about how to keep all those commandments appropriately and faithfully.

The polemic in Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees, and the warnings that are uttered to Israel, show that Matthew still had hope that his ideas would become normative for all Jewish people. What was being taught in “our synagogues” at the time of the writing of this Gospel, some decades after the time of Jesus, was somewhat different from what was being taught in “their synagogues”—the places of teaching for the scribal authorities of the time. And this was despite the fact that Jesus himself had taught in “their synagogues”.

If the author of this Gospel knew anything about what was happening elsewhere in the movement initiated by the life and teachings of Jesus, he would have known about the gathering strength of the movement led by Saul of Tarsus, for whom strict obedience to Torah was of less importance than belief in Jesus as Messiah.

This arm of the movement was opening a door wide for Gentiles, who did not follow the Torah, to belong to such communities. This had been underway since the 50s. It had gained momentum by the late 60s and would become the dominant form of Christianity later in the second century. At the time that Matthew’s book of origins was being compiled, however, there were still people maintaining fidelity to the covenant of Israel, holding fast to the commandments and ordinances of the Torah, who nevertheless confessed Jesus to be Messiah—the chosen one of God, the Teacher supreme of Torah.

It was perhaps with an awareness of this growing trajectory of less attachment to Torah within the Jesus movement, that Matthew’s Gospel was created—to insist on the centrality and priority of the traditional teaching of Jesus, the Torah-observant Jew, whom God had chosen as the anointed one. And the picture that he offers of Jesus is a resolutely Jewish one. Remembering that Jesus said “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5) makes perfect sense in this context.

The Jesus who is presented in this Gospel is a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as the disciple’s Rabbi and as God’s Messiah, Jesus frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28–30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come unless righteous-justice is followed in the present. The threat of this judgement is constantly before the people, calling them to lives of righteous-justice, which is the hallmark of the kingdom which God has in store for God’s people—the central message that Jesus persistently proclaims.

Proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (Matt 4; Epiphany 3A)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matt 4:23). So we hear at the end of the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday.

Again, some chapters later, we hear that Jesus leaves his family (10:35–38) to travel from town to town, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (9:35). As he travels, he has “nowhere to lay his head” (8:20) and no possessions to call his own, in accordance with the instruction he later gives to a rich man, telling him, “if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21).

The “good news” that Jesus proclaims so insistently as he travels around contains some hard, demanding requirements. In fact, towards the end of this Gospel, Jesus gives a series of clear directions regarding what is required to “be perfect”, to gain “eternal life”, to enter “the kingdom of heaven” (19:16–26). His call is challenging.

At the very start of his public activity in Matthew’s account, Jesus has sounded the central motif of his preaching: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17, repeating the very same message of John the baptiser, 3:2).

On the significance of the themes in this key verse, see

This coming kingdom, which Jesus has proclaimed from the start of his public preaching (4:17, 23; 5:3, 10; 5:19-20; 6:10, 33; 7:21; 8:11–12; 9:35; 10:7), is the same kingdom that Daniel had foreseen (“the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed”, Dan 2:44). The promise that God had made long ago was that “my covenant of peace shall not be removed” (Isa 54:10). It is this kingdom that many prophets had been speaking about—the time when the ways of God would be faithfully followed by the people chosen by God, as they maintained their commitment to the covenant made with their God.

Those prophets had regularly reminded the people of Israel of the need to act in ways that were consistent with the tsedeqah, the righteous-justice, that the Lord God required of them. Jesus stands in this prophetic tradition; in Matthew’s narrative, he emphasises that it is keeping righteous-justice (5:20; 10:41; 13:17; 21:32) which characterises “the kingdom of God” (6:33). It is this righteous-justice which is a prerequisite to “inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world” (25:34–40).

Acting in accordance with this righteous-justice brings into present reality the prophetic promise about the coming kingdom, when God’s way of righteous-justice will be followed by faithful people (Isa 26:7–9; 40:3–5; Jer 6:16; Mal 3:1; 4:4–6; and the many prophetic oracles concerning the Day of the Lord).

It is only in this Gospel that Jesus is directly equated with the Servant, chosen by God, on whom God’s Spirit rests, the one who will “proclaim righteous-justice to the Gentiles” (Matt 12:18, quoting Isa 42:1) and will not rest until “he brings righteous-justice to victory” (Matt 12:20, quoting Isa 42:3).

This way of righteous-justice is consistent with the message of many prophetic voices (Amos 5:24; Hos 10:12; Isa 5:7, 16; 9:7; 11:4–5; 32:1, 16–17; 42:6; 61:1–4; Jer 9:23–24; 22:3; 33:14–16; Zeph 2:3; Mal 4:1–6). The Servant exemplifies this way of faithful obedience to the claims of the covenant. And it is in this way of righteous-justice that Jesus stands, as he proclaims “the good news of the kingdom”.

The rhetoric of the cross (1 Cor 1; Advent 3A)

This coming Sunday, the third Sunday in Epiphany, the lectionary offers focus on the themes of illumination and revelation which are to the fore during this season. The Psalmist writes of his seeking the face of the Lord; “your face, Lord, do I seek; do not hide your face from me” (Ps 27:8–9). It is a prayer that may well serve as the theme prayer for the season of Epiphany.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of the Lord “making glorious” the land of Israel, for “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). That same prophetic oracle is then quoted in the excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 4:15–16), as the commencement of the ministry of Jesus is seen to be “what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” (Matt 4:14). The light shining in the darkness is indeed the Epiphany motif.

In the Epistle that is being read during these weeks in Epiphany, 1 Corinthians, there is no specific reference to illumination or revelation, as per the theme of the season. Sosthenes has joined with Paul to write quite specifically to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2); the letter certainly indicates a good awareness of the situation in Corinth.

However, Sosthenes and Paul then add to that specific address, indicating that they write also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2), wishing them grace and peace (1:3). It is a letter sent with all good intentions to encourage and support the believers in Corinth; but the addition of this wider scope of believers “in every place” broadens the intended audience. We are explicitly invited into that wider audience through this additional phrase.

The apostle Paul is known as a letter writer; there are 13 letters attributed to him in the New Testament—although it is likely that almost half of them were written by students of Paul after his lifetime, drawing on his authority to give force to what they write. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

Paul collaborated in the writing of many of his letters—of the seven agreed authentic letters, only two are written by Paul alone. The others are written in association with Timothy (2 Cor, Phil, 1 Thess and Phlm), Silvanus (1 Thess), and Sosthenes (1 Cor). It is this latter letter that the creators of the lectionary, in their wisdom, have offered us during the season of Epiphany. We read the opening chapters in sequence through these weeks.

Sosthenes and Paul tell the Corinthians that they write to “give thanks” (1:4) and also to “appeal to you” (1:10); and later, to “admonish you as my beloved children” (4:14). The constructive approach that they bring is made clear in the opening prayer of thanksgiving (1:4–9).

*****

In the passage we hear this Sunday (1 Cor 1:10–18), there is an unequivocal statement about what undergirds the constructive intention that Sosthenes and Paul bring as they write. It is “the cross of Christ” (1:18) that shapes the discussion and directions that Paul will present to the believers in Corinth in the ensuing 16 chapters. (This letter is longer than all other Pauline letters, except for Romans—also 16 chapters in length.)

Given the reference to an earlier letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9), there may already have been discussion of the cross of Christ—either in that letter, or in a presumed response from the Corinthians, or in personal discussions and sermons during the period that Paul and others were in Corinth. Acts 18 indicates that Paul was there for 18 months, along with Aquila and Priscilla, Silas and Timothy, as well Titus Justus, a godfearer and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue (archisynagogos), and also Sosthenes, also identified as a leader of the synagogue (archisynagogos) who was seized and beaten in the presence of Gallio, the proconsul (Acts 18:17).

Acts reports that Paul left Corinth in company with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18), moving to Ephesus, in which city the letter to Corinth was written (1 Cor 16:8). There is no further mention of Sosthenes, although the co-authorship of 1 Corinthians might suggest that Sosthenes also left his home town of Corinth—at least for a time, to escape the persecution he had experienced there.

Sosthenes, like Crispus, would have been high-status in the Jewish community in Corinth. Sosthenes and Paul indicate that they have received other high-status visitors from Corinth, travelling to Ephesus: Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17), as well as “the people from Chloe” (1:11)—were they, perhaps, slaves from the household in which Chloe was patron? Female patrons, of course, were known at the time—witness Phoebe (Rom 16:1–2), and see the excellent overview of Marg Mowczko at https://margmowczko.com/new-testament-women-church-leaders/

So Paul and Sosthenes were well-informed as they write this letter to the Corinthians. There are problems aplenty in Corinth. In the few verses set for this coming Sunday, they write about division and the quarrels that have resulted. They plead for agreement and unity. They remind the Corinthians about baptism. In subsequent chapters, they will range over a long list of matters, often introducing them with the formulaic “now concerning …” (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12). That formula may suggest they are responding to specific information brought by their visitors.

So, in verse 18, the last verse of the selection offered for this Sunday, Sosthenes and Paul sound out the key theme of this letter, which is about the cross of Christ: “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The verses immediately following develop this motif of the paradox inherent in the cross with rhetorical finesse. (See next week’s blog.)

*****

“The cross” is a theme that was sounded by Paul in his preaching and his writing. He had written to the Galatians, “may I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). He had written to the Philippians, urging them to “have the same mind” as Christ Jesus, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), and warning them that those who opposed Paul’s preaching were “enemies of the cross” (Phil 3:18).

He would later inform the Corinthians that he models his own ministry on that of Christ; “he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God; for we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4)—just as he had told the Galatians that “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:19–20).

He would also later exhort the believers in Rome to see their baptism as the means by which they were linked with Jesus in his death and resurrection, instructing them that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:3–6). In the central theological argumentation of this important letter, Paul places the cross as the means by which the good news is known: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

He would remind them that “Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9), and he deals with the conflict in Rome between weak and strong by proposing that the quarrelling parties follow the pattern established by Christ, who “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (Rom 15:3). The cross informed his instructions to the Romans for their daily living.

The same process is employed in the earlier letter to the Corinthians. The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. All of this is worked out in the first two chapters of the letter, in passages that we will hear in the coming two weeks (1 Cor 1:18–31; 2:1–12).

There, Paul will remind the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23), that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), and that the paradoxical wisdom that is at the heart of the story of Jesus, “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

Perhaps the cross is the way par excellence for the Lord God to communicate, illuminate, reveal? Perhaps Epiphany revelation is strongest through this crucifixion?

Stay tuned for further discussion in coming weeks … … …

Appropriating prophetic passages in the season of Epiphany (Isa 49; Epiphany 2A)

Every Sunday throughout the Christian year (save for the six Sundays in the season of Easter), the Revised Common Lectionary provides a passage from Hebrew Scripture as the First Reading in the set of four readings for that Sunday. (During Easter, a passage from Acts stands as the First Reading, providing stories from the early years of the movement which Jesus founded.)

Each year, during the season of Epiphany, the First Readings relate to the prophetic figures of ancient Israel. In Year A (this year), almost all of them are drawn from the book of Isaiah the prophet, with one from Micah and one from Deuteronomy (where the link is with Moses, the great prophet).

Each year, the Feast of Epiphany includes Isaiah 60:1–6 as the First Reading. In this passage, the prophet foresees that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3); he specifies that when they come to the light of the Lord, “they shall bring gold and frankincense,

and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isa 60:6). The reason for reading this on Epiphany is obvious—it correlates well with the story in Matthew of when the magi came to visit Jesus, and “they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt 2:11).

The first Sunday after the Feast of Epiphany is always the day on which the Baptism of Jesus is recalled. One year (Year B) places the beginnings of the priestly creation account (Gen 1:1–5) alongside this Gospel story. In the other two years, passages from Second Isaiah are offered; in Year C, this is Isaiah 43:1–7, which includes the affirmation, “do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine; when you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa 43:1–2). The presence of water in both of these passages seems to be the reason for their linking with the baptism of Jesus.

This year, Year A, the prophetic excerpt is the first of four songs that are linked explicitly with the Servant (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). In this first song, the Servant is designated as the one in whom God delights (42:1); the phrase recurs in the message of the voice from the cloud which speaks at the baptism of Jesus, declaring that he is the one “with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).

The song also affirms that the Servant has God’s spirit within him (Isa 42:1), something which is directly enacted in the baptism of Jesus when he “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt 3:16). It is clear, therefore, why this passage has been selected for this day.

On the ensuing Sundays, we are offered two further sections from Isaiah (Isa 49 and Isa 9), a famous passage from Micah 6, another passage from Isaiah (Isa 58), and then a section of the lengthy speech attributed to Moses after the covenant renewal ceremony (Deut 29–30), in which he speaks like a prophet: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses; choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19).

The four prophetic passages that appear in weeks two to six this year offer some striking words from the times of ancient Israel. Their inclusion in a key lectionary of the Christian churches alongside Gospel passages recounting the early period of the public activity of Jesus invites us to appropriate these passages as pointing to Jesus as God’s chosen one (messiah).

This is particularly evident in this Sunday’s passage (Isa 49:1–7), where a number of elements have been interpreted as predictors of the role that Jesus undertook. There are six different elements in these seven verses which can be seen to serve as such predictors, pointing forward to Jesus.

The one who sings this song is declared by God to be God’s servant (49:3), in the same way that Jesus is acknowledged as servant (Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30). The song was originally composed and sung during the Exile in Babylon, as the prophet looked to a return to the land of Israel and the resumption of Israel’s role as God.

See

This servant has an awareness that he has been chosen before his birth for his role (49:1, 5), a sense that is conveyed in the Gospel narratives that variously indicate God’s plan and purpose for Jesus was conveyed to his mother (Luke 1:32–33), his father (Matt 1:21), and then both parents (Luke 2:34–35, and 3:38). The sense of a purpose for Jesus that was determined long before his activities in Galilee and Jerusalem is also evident in the prologue to the book of signs (John 1:9–14) and in a later controversy reported in that book (John 8:42, 58).

The servant is the one in whom God would be glorified (49:3), pointing to a key theme in the book of signs, where the function of Jesus is to glorify God (Jon 17:1–5). The servant will gather Israel back to God (49:5), “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel” (49:6). This is the mission that Jesus declares when he asserts that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:24), and is inherent in his charge to the disciples, “you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30).

This particular servant song also includes two key statements which figure prominently in the orderly account of the early church which is told in two volumes and is attributed to Luke. First, the servant is told by God, “I will give you as a light to the nations” (49:6)—an image that is picked up by three evangelists. Simeon declares that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:38). The Johannine Jesus affirms of himself, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). And the Matthean Jesus then extrapolates the image, telling his disciples, “you are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14).

Then, the servant is told that God has given him that light “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). This phrase occurs in the definitive statement of the risen Jesus, in the second Lukan account of the ascension of Jesus, when he charges his followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8); the phrase recurs when this servant song is later quoted by Paul (Acts 13:47).

When we look back at this text, through the prism of Jesus, we can see just how well it seems to speak of Jesus. In Christian understanding, he was indeed the Servant, chosen by God, glorifying God in his life and his death, recalling Israel to their covenant with God, and shining as a light that would bring the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth. The text looks to be a clear prediction of Jesus.

And yet, interpreting this passage and other ancient Israelite prophetic passages as predictive of Jesus is a strategy that we should undertake with care. Christians have a bad track record of taking Jewish texts and Christianising them, talking and writing and thinking about them as if they were always intended simply to be understood as Christian texts. But first of all, they were Jewish (or, to be precise, ancient Israelite texts).

So the original setting of such passages needs always to be considered—the historical, social, political, cultural contexts in which they came into being, as well as the literary genre being used and the linguistic and literary conventions being deployed. Obliterating the original setting and acting as if the text was intended for a time many centuries later, is unfair and unethical.

Indeed, Christianising Old Testament texts can well become the first step in a dangerous process, as we firstly remove Judaism from our interpretive framework, and then treat the prophetic text as having nothing to do with Judaism, and everything to do with Christianity. This is the pathway that can lead to supercessionism—a view that Christianity has superseded and indeed replaced Judaism—and even antisemitism—actively speaking and acting against Jews and Judaism. And having arrived at such a destination, we are reinforced in our pattern of ignoring and obliterating the earlier meanings in the text.

Texts (whether biblical or other literature) are always multivalent—that is, open to being interpreted in a number of ways, offering multiple ways of understanding them. That’s why we have sermons, and don’t just read the biblical text and then put it down. We keep it before our minds, and explore options for understanding and appropriating it. Ignoring the multiple layers of meaning inherent in biblical passages is a reductionist and self-centred way of undertaking interpretation. Reducing the prophetic texts to predictive declarations solely about Jesus is a poor interpretive process.

See also

What are you looking for? Come and see! (John 1; Epiphany 2A)

“When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ (John 1:38–39).

“Come and see” is the key invitation spoken by Jesus in these opening scenes in the book of signs. First, in Judea, Jesus extends an invitation to Andrew, at that stage a follower of John, and one other, a fellow-disciple of John (1:35–40). Later, in Galilee, Jesus calls Philip to follow him (1:43), and when Philip is asked by Nathaniel about this interaction, Philip invites Nathaniel to “come and see” (1:46).

Some years later, “we wish to see Jesus” is the request made by some Greeks to Philip in Jerusalem at the Passover (12:21). And then, after the momentous events that ensure, “come, see” is the invitation that Jesus makes to his disciple Thomas, at the end of the book of signs, when he invites his doubting friend to “put your finger here and see my hands” (20:27).

This reading from the book of signs (which we know as the Gospel according to John) is an appropriate offering for this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The season celebrates the manifestation of God in Jesus, the one chosen by God to show God’s love to the world. The reading contains a number of pointers to that key theme of the book of signs—stories that reveal how God was present in Jesus.

In that interaction between Philip and “some Greeks”, Philip gathers Andrew, and together they approach Jesus to report the request made of them to “see Jesus” (12:22). Jesus informs them that what they will see, if they look with care, is “the hour … for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23)—a moment that occurs soon after, when the crowd mistakes “the voice from heaven” for thunder (12:28–29), but which is actually the light that shines in the darkness (12:35–36).

In Hebrew Scripture, the “glory of God” is the shekinah, the visible sign of the presence of God amongst God’s people (Exod 25:8)—in the stories of the wilderness wanderings, the shekinah was “the pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light” (Exod 13:21–22). In John’s Gospel, when Jesus is glorified, he reveals the divine presence amongst human beings (John 1:14; 2:11; 11:4, 40; 12:16, 28, 41–43; 17:5, 22–24).

This is the climactic revelation of Jesus in the book of signs; and whilst this is signalled in the poetic prologue to the book (1:14), in the prose narrative that ensues in this opening chapter (1:19–51), a number of revelations of the identity and significance of Jesus are made.

Indeed, there is a series of Jewish titles which are embedded in this prose narrative, as key characters confess the significance of Jesus throughout this extended preface (1:19–51). Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). It is worth noting that these claims about Jesus are each made also within the Synoptic traditions. Indeed, the Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference.

In later scenes, Jesus is also addressed by these Jewish terms, when he is called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). Then, the ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18).

Perhaps we tend to remember the fourth Gospel as the one which reveals the extensive cosmic significance of Jesus—the Word made flesh (1:14), the one closest to the heart of the Father who has “made the Father known” (1:18), and most famously, the one through whom God shows that “God so loved the world” (3:16). This Gospel seems to offer much in terms of a Saviour for the whole world (4:42), a sign for Greeks (that is, Gentiles) from beyond Judaism (12:20).

Yet, for the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the final, climactic confession by Thomas can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenistic Jewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”). In light of this usage of the terms by Philo, Jerome Neyrey wisely concludes that “Jesus is correctly called ‘God’ because he exercises creative power, and ‘Lord’ because he has full eschatological power”; see https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/MyLord.God.htm

So an important clue to a central motif running throughout this Gospel is placed in the mouth of Philip, when he says to Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (1:45). The Jewish terms point to this reality about how Jesus was understood in the community within which the book of signs was written: Jesus is to be regarded as the fulfilment of scripture.

Notice that the author of this Gospel takes Philip, an almost anonymous figure in the Synoptic Gospels, and places in his mouth these key sayings, about the fulfilment of the scriptures (1:45), and the relevance of Jesus to Gentiles (12:20–26), and, indeed, the fundamental request, “Lord, show us the Father” (14:8). Philip articulates what the author of the book of signs seeks.

Now, it is true that the affirmation that Jesus fulfils scripture is common to all four canonical Gospels. It is very clear in the Synoptic accounts; we should not, however, diminish its significance on the fourth Gospel. This interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison between Jesus and Moses (1:17). It is stated explicitly, as we have noted, in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and later in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).

There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a “fulfilment formula” is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).

However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.

So this Gospel passage for the second Sunday in Epiphany reminds us of the Jewish origins of Jesus and also the continuing appreciation of Jesus in Jewish terms, throughout the early decades of the movement that was initiated by his proclamation and action in Galilee and (especially in John’s account) in Jerusalem, over some years. In our Christian appropriation of the figure of Jesus, we would do well to remember his Jewish origins, and the strongly Jewish nature of early Christian interpretation of Jesus. We owe much to Judaism, both as our ancient heritage and indeed as an enduring living faith which continues to proclaim faith in the God whom Jesus knew, and loved, and revealed.