Scripture notes – 6th Sunday of the year, C – 17th February 2019

Where do you put your ultimate trust? Today’s readings all show how often the Bible makes a contrast between relying on humans and relying on God. This age-old choice has relevance for the present with uncertainty and instability in so much of the globe and people are looking for political solutions.

The readings are available online here.

Jeremiah 17:5-8
Much of Jeremiah’s message was shaped by seeing the wrong choices the people were making in his time, which he foresaw would bring them to the national disaster of destruction by Babylon. The conquerors also took the leaders and many of the people off into captivity. He had seen the efforts of reform under King Josiah fail and the people turn to pagan gods and listen to the false prophets who encouraged them to think all was right and they could rely on foreign powers for political salvation. That explains the strong language of ‘cursed’ he uses for those who preferred to trust in ‘mere mortals’ rather than the Lord: he knows they will be lost to war and slavery.

He turns to poetry, which can be more emotionally powerful that the prose warnings he has given in the verses just before this selection. He asks them to imagine the choice as if between a barren landscape with dead trees unable to survive even when the rains do come, and a strong and deeply rooted tree which will not wither even in drought, protected by the streams it grows along. It mirrors God’s care for those who put their trust in him: they will not only survive but bear fruit.

Psalm 1:1-4, 6
As the opening to the book of 150 psalms, this is a description of those who reject the worldly and selfish advice of others, and choose to delight in the guidance of the Lord. Much of what this means will be laid out in the rest of the book. The Psalmist uses the same image as Jeremiah of the well-planted and fruitful tree, but his contrast is the dead straw blown away in the process of winnowing out the grain. This ‘chaff’ is taken by the wind away and is lost and worthless.

1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20
A different kind of choice concerns St Paul in dealing with the Corinthians. He has been reminding them of his teaching of the powerful redemption we have through the death and resurrection of Christ. But some in that community are denying that the people will also rise again through that power of Christ. It has been suggested that this was because of the ideals of Greek philosophy that the soul is immortal but the body will not last. Instead of that, the hope of Christians is that our new life will be total, as was Jesus’ in his glorious body. He was not a ghostly spirit without human identity nor will Christians be that in their new life. Death for Paul comes from sin, and if there is no resurrection, he says, you will be left in your sins. All this for him would mean ‘we are the most unfortunate of all people’ – having chosen to ‘die in Christ’ if they do not live again, they might as well have had no hope, and lived like the pagans. Then he states his faith forcefully: not only has Christ been raised from the dead, but this is a promise – first fruits – that we shall also be raised, as our seeming death will be like ‘falling asleep’ knowing one will wake to life.

Luke 6:17, 20-26
This is the section in Luke’s gospel that some call ‘The Sermon on the Plain’ because it is like Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in gathering together many teachings of Jesus. In fact, there are passages that contain the same ideas and even same words. Matthew puts the teaching early just after the first fishers have been called and it becomes an opening explanation of Jesus’ ministry. Luke has it later in his account. The opening words of our reading show it follows the choice of the Twelve Apostles and Jesus has been engaged in healing. Luke makes it clear the first words are directed at disciples and not a general audience. The poetic verses of Matthew’s ‘Beatitudes’ with their words of ‘happy’ (or ‘blessèd’) have some similarities to what we hear today, but there are more that Luke’s. Only Luke adds matching ‘Woes’. He takes the Older Testament pattern of comparing two ways of life.

The contrast is stark, and this may be the reason Christians have tended to prefer Matthew. Luke shows from the the opening words Jesus takes from Isaiah that his concern is especially for the poor the suffering, the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21 which we heard on the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time). It appears also in Mary’s hymn (Luke 1:46-55). We who are living comfortably, and those in luxury may not be happy to hear that this is the only reward we will get. At this point, Luke does not stress that such a comfortable life bears the obligation to help others, here he is concerned to show however that such comfort is often selfish, turned away from trusting God and not listening to the Gospel. At some future point people who have lived this way will be brought to judge how wrong this is, and feel the remorse that can be described as ‘woe’. It is not a punishment from God, who will forgive the repentant – and even seek them out with his offer of love, instead it calls his listeners to see that such a choice is wrong and ultimately fruitless.

In the time Luke is writing, he has no doubt seen some persecuted for choosing to follow Jesus, and rather than regretting this, Jesus tells them they should rejoice for their reward is with God. While there is a strong human drive to be accepted, appreciated and admired, this often comes for very wrong reasons, like being wealthy, powerful and famous. Jesus (and Luke as well) is steeped in knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and he expects his listeners to follow him as he reminds them of how the prophets were treated – including Jeremiah. As Jeremiah had to protest against the false prophets who were received by the King (Jeremiah 14:13-19), so approval of the world so often comes for faulty reasons. Wanting such recognition will ultimately end in having nothing of value.

The liturgy leaves us to meditate on what choice we make.

Joan Griffith