• Education Forums

Bible Study Guide for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 5, 2022

January 31, 2023
  • Isaiah 58: 1-12
  • Psalm 112: 1-10
  • 1 Corinthians 2: 1-16
  • Matthew 5: 13-20

Once again, Jesus appears to have given us an impossible mandate. It's not quite like His demand to "be perfect", but it's close - to be as righteous as the scribes and Pharisees is a tall order, and probably an unappealing one. With their dedicated pursuit of righteous living in the eyes of God, the reputation of the scribes and Pharisees has suffered over time, reducing them to caricatures of rigid, dry legalism. Who would ever want to follow God like that? Some modern Christians go further in dismissing the entire law as overly harsh, brushing it aside as an anachronism. Yet in this passage, Jesus reminds us that the law and its keeping is central to His
message. What in the law is relevant to Jesus's ministry?

This is a huge question that can't be answered in one short guide, obviously. But this week's readings help open our eyes to the Jewish tradition that inspired Jesus's teachings. Isaiah speaks very clearly of what it means to keep God's living word. We are told we must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and set prisoners free. The Israelites have attempted to amend their worship and fasting, but Isaiah insists neglecting the homeless and hungry is their greater shortfall, and their neglect of the poor harms all of God's creation. It's a frequent refrain in the Old Testament, the people of Israel falling away from the most difficult commandment of the law: to love our neighbors - especially the poorest and least deserving, including our enemies. Prophets call over and over for a cleansing of the heart of the people, to amend our selfishness and to start looking for God in the people nearest to us.

I can imagine that the Israelites, like myself, found it easiest to go through the gestures and say the right words and make no attempt to help the suffering people immediately around me. It's easy enough to grasp certain parts of the law, and "keeping the law" can become a more manageable "checking the boxes" that asks nothing more from me than what I'm willing to give. The law has an outwardly obvious use of keeping God's people in a rhythm of prayer, rest, and service. Yet the law's deeper meaning comes forth in constantly reorienting our hearts towards God, beyond our rituals and outward actions. The law "works" when we can keep our hearts warm and centered on God's will. Life in the law isn't rigid or dry - rather, we become like bright light or pungent salt, filled with vigor and enlivening everything around us.

When we see the broader scope of the law, we can see how Jesus fits in with this prophetic tradition. Jesus (Paul, too) often refuses to come down as either pro- or anti-law. Zeal for the law can help bring us closer to God, and Jesus encourages us to be zealous in righteousness like the Pharisees. It is a tall order but a worthwhile one, to work as hard as a scribe to orient ourselves to God's ways and learn from God's teachings. We also know this isn't Jesus's last word on the Pharisees. In other passages, Jesus does not spare the Pharisees from criticism for their ignorance of the people around them. He calls us to pursue righteousness, not for its own sake - for God's sake, and for the sake of the world.

– Betsy Noecker


What does "the law" evoke for you? Is it relevant to your current spiritual practices?

Do you have certain rituals that help orient you to God? Have those ever become ends to themselves?

When has someone called you out of spiritual stultification and back into God?


At "Educational Forums," enrich your spiritual journey by exploring our resources including videos of lectures, essays by priests, and other pieces about our faith, our church, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the 21st century.