The light of the world

Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, February 5, 2023: Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20; Psalm 112:1-9, (10)

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. (Isaiah 58: 9b-10)

“You are the light of the world. . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14, 16)

One of the things that I like about February is the longer hours of daylight. It is light earlier in the morning, after that cruel stretch in late December and early January when sunrise gets later. The light in the evening is particularly noticeable. Light matters. Today’s readings circle around light and darkness, focusing on how we as the faithful provide light.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet is criticizing those who make a great show of their piety, but do not follow the Lord’s commandments. They may fast, but at the same time they “serve their your own interest. . .and oppress all your workers”. The fast that the Lord chooses instead is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free”. We usually think of fasting as self-denial, but Isaiah defines the fast as one from selfishness and pettiness, not just food. If you do this, “your light shall rise in the darkness”.

Similarly, Matthew in today’s Gospel reminds us that if you light a lamp, you do not hide it, but place it where its light can be widely seen. It is this light that illumines the “city on a hill”. And what Jesus wants seen in this light are the good works of his followers.

There has been a long debate in Christianity about the importance of what we do. Paul, and in following him Augustine and later Martin Luther, focused on the importance of faith. Another tradition points to works. Faith and works are not opposed to each other, they nurture each other. Yes, faith is important; we repeat the creed weekly. But there are weeks when I am not sure I believe what I am saying. I have questions. Faith is sometimes wobbly, and doubt is an occasional companion. In the Episcopal tradition, we welcome questions, but questions can sit awkwardly with faith. At those times, a focus on doing provides a way to be faithful.

Another reason to emphasize action is the way it links us to the other Abrahamic faiths. Christianity is unusual as a religion in its emphasis on belief rather than action. In both Judaism and Islam, observance of certain practices is what is important. These are relatively simple in Islam: you acknowledge Allah, pray five times daily, give to charity, fast during Ramadan, and if you can, make a pilgrimage to Mecca during your lifetime. The laws followed by observant Jews, shaped by the ten commandments, also focus around love of God and love of neighbor. Both the Qur’an and the Hebrew scriptures fill these out with various ways you carry out these commandments, but the requirements are always moving out from the central commandments.

After Jesus tells his followers to let their light shine, he turns to the law: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Your righteousness, he continues, must “exceed that of the scribes and Pharissees.”

What is the law that we must follow more righteously than the scribes and Pharisees? Is it the various dietary and purity customs that are laid out in Leviticus? Does it mean not eating shrimp and not working on the sabbath? Given that Jesus breaks a narrow interpretation of the commandments about work on the sabbath, this seems unlikely. Instead, Jesus is calling us to the fast that Isaiah calls for: a fast that brings justice and freedom.

We would be kidding ourselves if we thought a fast for justice and freedom was easy. But it is useful to think about what it would mean.

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