If it feels like someone hit the fast forward button to send us into the Lenten readings, that’s not accidental. In the older lectionaries in the West the three Sundays prior to Ash Wednesday were treated as part of a “the Greater Lent,” and some of our readings reflect this older treatment.
So, certainly, the first reading, which pretty much says all we need to say about fasting as a Lenten discipline. Our Lectionary omits the last two verses, the verses about the Sabbath, which ignores the text’s logic. If I don’t receive the Sabbath as God’s generous gift, then the generosity the text describes toward the vulnerable is not going to come naturally.
The second reading, as we heard, continues Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians re wisdom. Centuries and tradition have distanced us from the shock of the cross; back then even words like ‘cross’ and ‘crucify’ would not appear in polite society. If Jesus on the cross displays God’s wisdom, then God’s and our wisdom are not the same, and the Corinthians’ wisdom is less effective than they assume.
Our Gospel reading makes at least three points. First, the images of salt and light restate the rationale for there being a “people of God.” It echoes multiple Old Testament texts, starting with God’s words to Abraham “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b). Jesus is not starting a new project, but restarting that old project.
Over in the Gospel of John we hear Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5). Here, “You are the light of the world.” We might say: Jesus is the light of the world so that God’s people can be the light of the world. To get into the spirit of it—and since we’re in Wisconsin—here’s Vince Lombardi: “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”
Second, Jesus not abolishing, but fulfilling the Law. We’ll need to wonder about how that works as we continue in the Sermon on the Mount.
Third, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That’s a warning that itself needs a warning label: Jesus is talking about the scribes and Pharisees as a group, so we can’t extrapolate to every member of that group. The scribes and Pharisees are supposed to be good at righteousness, but, like most groups in every time and place that are supposed to be good at righteousness, they’re vulnerable. Why not maximize the benefits and minimize the costs—also when it comes to interpreting the law? Like Isaiah’s audience, whose practice of fasting was simply self-serving. Joseph’s story, the first in Matthew’s Gospel, displays a different sort of vulnerability. Joseph is righteous, but without angelic intervention, his righteousness would have meant discarding Mary. And Jesus will spend the rest of the Sermon on the Mount describing what that righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees looks like.
As a sort of preview of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, let’s look at today’s psalm. And that means looking at Psalms 111-112, for the two psalms are a matched pair, the only such tight pair in the Psalter. Please find them on pp.754-755 of the BCP. Both psalms are acrostic, each line ordered—after the initial “Hallelujah”—by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, running from A to Z, as it were.
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the deeds of the Lord! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.
3 His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.
4 He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
5 He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.
8 They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.
Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!
2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3 Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.
4 Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.
5 It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.
6 For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.
7 They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right; they put their trust in the Lord.
8 Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.
9 They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.
10 The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.
Back in Genesis we hear “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26); we might hear these two psalms as a meditation on how that plays out: the righteous God, the righteous human being.
The divine-human relation is certainly not symmetrical. Both psalms begin with “Hallelujah!” (Not first “Praise Yah” and then “Praise Us.”) The first psalm ends with “the fear of the Lord;” the second begins by declaring “happy” (there’s that word again that we met in last week’s Beatitudes) “they who fear the Lord.”
OK; Sidebar. “Fear the Lord.” There are good reasons why that phrase makes us nervous, and we often gloss it with “reverence.” That gloss is not wrong, but something can be lost. Ellen Davis: “Fear is an elemental response; reverence is a head trip. Fear is the unmistakable feeling in our bodies, in our stomachs and our scalp, when we run up hard against the power of God.” Recall that scene in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in which Mr. Beaver is preparing Lucy to meet the lion Aslan:
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.
Not safe, but good: not a bad framework for sorting out what sorts of fear are appropriate. But back to the psalms.
What is striking is the celebration of image/likeness, first in the identical vocabulary in vv.3-4 (the English translation’s decision to translate the same Hebrew words differently is a head-scratcher). The celebration continues, taking the differences of scale into account. The Lord is generous (vv.5a, 6b, 9a), as are the righteous (vv.5a, 9a).
God is glorious, and it is a glorious thing to be a human being. This pair of psalms can remind us of that when it’s not obvious, when we begin the day by putting our pants on backwards (last Thursday).
Besides the Creator/creature difference, perhaps the most obvious difference is that the Lord is unopposed; the idols of the nations are not worth mentioning. The righteous, on the other hand, live in the midst of the wicked. And here’s where the psalm notices a corollary to the fear of the Lord. The righteous fear the Lord. So they do not fear evil rumors (v.7), they do not “shrink” (v.8, same Hebrew word). So I wonder: if I feared the Lord more would I fear what Wall Street is doing to my IRA less? Anyhow, as the psalm lays it out, we might say that the righteous get the image of God right: generosity toward the vulnerable. The wicked get the image of God wrong: abusive, tight-fisted, egocentric. The righteous have a future underwritten by Lord; the wicked do not.
From the perspective of the two psalms it’s a no-brainer: we’re created in God’s image; image God’s generosity. But that it needs saying shows that it’s not self-evident. We see things not as they are, but as we are, and that includes “seeing” God. So some see a god who does whatever he wants, likes throwing his weight around, who’s accountable to no one, and set about imitating that.
So this pair of psalms that we’ve been examining also examines us. How do we perceive God? What elements of that perceived divine character are we in fact imitating? As we wonder about that we may be able to better hear what Jesus might be telling us as we continue in Matthew’s Gospel.
How do we perceive God? What elements of that perceived divine character are we in fact imitating?
 See, conveniently, https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/7-march/regulars/out-of-the-question/old-names-of-pre-lent-sundays (accessed 1/30/2023).
 Getting involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (2001), p.102.