INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
ISAIAH 6:1-13. Here we have another classic example of a prophet called to a special ministry. As the smoke of the morning sacrifice wafted through the temple, Isaiah had a vision and heard an angelic voice praising the holiness of God. He then realized his own and his fellow Israelites' unworthiness before God. One of the angelic beings touched his lips with a live coal, thus cleansing him to speak. Isaiah heard the voice of God calling for a messenger and he responded. But the message God gave him to deliver was one of unmitigated judgment.
PSALM 138. Unlike most of the psalms, this hymn of thanksgiving by an individual is thought to be from a small "Davidic collection." (Psalms 138-145.) This meant that it was ascribed to King David rather than being composed by him. It expresses gratitude for God's blessing as well as trust in God's love and purpose.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:1-11. In this passage beginning his great confession of the resurrection, Paul states as simply as possible what he had learned from the apostles. He had met some of them - notably Peter (Cephas) and James - in Jerusalem when he returned there some time after his conversion. First, he concentrated on the facts he had been told. Could this summary have been what the apostles in the earliest Christian community were teaching in the first years after the resurrection? Then he too makes his claim as "the least of the apostles" and reiterates his dependence on God's grace for that.
LUKE 5:1-11. Behind the gospels as we now have them, there was a long tradition of stories about Jesus' teaching and miracles repeated by word of mouth before being put into written form. Toward the end of the 1st century CE Luke gave a much more elaborate story than either Mark or Matthew. He connects this story of a miraculous catch of fish with the calling of the first disciples. John tells it as one of Jesus' resurrection appearances (John 21). Taken together, the tradition represents a promise of the ultimate success of the apostolic mission.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
ISAIAH 6:1-13. Here we have another classic example of a prophet called to a special ministry. My OT professor, the late Rev. Dr. R.B.Y Scott, made this passage the starting point for his lectures on prophecy. He had written a highly regarded book, The Relevance of the Prophets, and at the time he was lecturing to us at McGill in 1948, he was writing the introduction and exegesis of Isaiah 1-39 for The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 5. His analysis of this passage in this latter volume is a valuable contribution to the understanding of prophetic visions and oracles.
The ancient temple in Jerusalem faced east. The daily sacrifice was offered as the sun rose over the horizon formed by the Mount of Olives. Rays from the rising sun flooded into the temple through its great doors causing its burnished gold and copper accouterments to shine gloriously. As the smoke of the morning sacrifice wafted through the temple, Isaiah, saw a vision and heard angelic voices praising the holiness of God.
Isaiah was possibly a cousin and certainly a courtier of King Uzziah, who had just died. Uzziah’s reign was one of the longest of the kings of Judah, 783-742 BCE. In his last years he suffered from leprosy and was replaced by his son Jotham as regent. This was also the time when Assyrian power throughout ancient Mesopotamia was on the rise. Uzziah’s reign included an expansion into both Philistine territory to the west that controlled trade routes to Egypt and Edom, tot he south, where there were valuable trade routes to Arabia. As the prophecies of Amos and Micah also reveal, this was a very prosperous period in the nation’s history.
In this passage Isaiah was in mourning and went into the temple, as was his wont, to offer a lament. As he worshiped in the familiar surroundings, he sensed the divine presence in a dramatic new way. God, of course, is invisible; yet Isaiah did have such a vision. Or was it just the hem of God's robe and the attending seraphim which represented the divine presence to him? Quickly afterward, Isaiah recognized his own unworthiness before God and that of his fellow Judeans. The experience overwhelmed him. That he should become the prophet to proclaim God's judgment on his nation's moral and spiritual decay was furthest from his imagination. Great revelations come to faithful men and women in the midst of the mundane experiences of life.
During Isaiah's vision, one of the angelic beings touched his lips with a live coal from the altar, thus cleansing him to speak for God. He heard the voice of God calling for a messenger and he responded, "Here am I, send me." But the message God gave him to deliver was one of unmitigated judgment. It must have been a fear-filled experience. To be called to speak God's judgment against his own people would have frightened the most courageous of men or women in that day of woeful events as is in ours. One only has to hear or see to the attack ads created for contemporary political campaigns to realize how much the prophet exposes him or herself to community ridicule.
Yet there are men and women willing to present the divine alternatives to our petty human machinations of history. The people are the ground-breakers for new advances in faith and witness to the purposes of God in the world. It was so for Isaiah, who with Amos and Micah in the late 8th century BCE set forth a vision of divine justice and righteousness which remains as convincing for us as it was for them. These elements of Israelite prophecy had close affinity to the actual events of that time when the great empires of Assyria and Egypt were in conflict. Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judea itself was constantly threatened with invasion and the imposition of foreign religious practices.
PSALM 138. Unlike most of the psalms, this hymn of thanksgiving by an individual is thought to be from a small "Davidic collection." (Psalms 138-145.) This meant that it was ascribed to King David rather than being composed by him.
There are some twenty such hymns of thanksgiving by individuals preserved in the religious literature of Israel. Isaiah 38:10-20 and Jonah 2:2-9 are examples found in the OT. The apocryphal books of Ecclessiasticus (Sirach), the Psalms of Solomon and the Odes of Solomon contain others.
Like most others, this psalm is from a postexilic date. The absence of any thanksgiving sacrifice points to an unusual level of spiritual development rarely found except in some of the prophetic literature which condemned the temple sacrifices. Or it may date from a time before the reconstruction of the temple when the normal sacrifices could not be celebrated. It also reflects a universalism echoing that of Second Isaiah (vss. 4-6) for earthly kings are said to worship God as do the humble; and God does not despise their praise. The psalm ends with an declaration of trust in God's love and purpose. Vs. 8 certainly provides a very preachable text.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:1-11. Paul states as simply as possible what he had learned from the apostles whom he met in Jerusalem when he returned there some time after his conversion. This probably occurred less than a decade after the resurrection. Some scholars believe it may have been no more hana yar or two. Could this have been an early Christian creed? It summarizes what the apostles were teaching in those first years after that momentous event when the apostolic church was feeling the full flush of its new faith.
One point stands out in Paul's repetition of this statement of faith. To him, the resurrection was something experienced by those few who had seen and spoken with the risen Christ. It was also Paul's firm conviction that the same risen Lord had appeared to him on the Damascus Road. The ambiguity between faith and fact remains with the Christian community to this day. Faith does not attempt to be factual. Rather it expresses a spiritual interpretation of deep and often inexplicable psychic experiences. It uses the language of image, symbol and metaphor to describe what persons of faith have experienced amid the ebb and flow of ordinary events which a reporter or historian might well record differently as observed facts or strange myths.
The resurrection experience symbolized for Paul and the other apostles that Jesus Christ, who had been executed as a criminal, was very much alive. Death had not conquered him; he had conquered death and was now with them in spirit. There were still many living in Paul's time who could testify to this experience. The reference to the risen Christ's appearance to five hundred people may be an alternate reminiscence of Pentecost as that event had been told to Paul by the apostolic community.
Quite possibly Paul was the first to connect the death of Christ to the ancient Israelite tradition that sin could be forgiven by the shedding of blood. This belief had its roots in the ancient practices of offering sacrifices to the deity common to all ancient religious traditions. In some traditions human sacrifice had also been quite commonly practiced. Even in Israel as late as the 7th century BCE reign of Manasseh (ca. 687-642 BCE) there had been evidence of this. Among the Jews, animal sacrifice in lieu of human sacrifice was related closely to the celebration of the both Passover and Yom Kippur. In this context Paul interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus as a self-offering which had a similar effect of dealing with the human problem of sin and alienation from God.
Note too that Paul adds himself as "the least of the apostles." One view of the narrative in Acts presents Paul and Peter as rivals for leadership of the Gentile mission. In Galatians and here, Paul gives some basis for this hypothesis. He numbers himself among the apostles, though with self-deprecating diminution. He goes on to reiterate his total dependence on God's grace for his status and gives his fellow apostles credit where credit is due. They all share the resurrection faith which is the heart of the gospel for us as well.
LUKE 5:1-11. (Author’s note: This passage is also covered in a new blog posted here: http://studiesinluke.blogspot.com. Look on the list to the left for #7 - Calling The First Disciples. The content of this blog introduced a Bible study series with a group of seniors at Glen Abbey United Church, Oakville,ON, Canada.)
Luke tells this story of a miraculous catch of fish in connection with the calling of the first disciples. His version is much more elaborate than the brief accounts of Mark and Matthew. John tells it as one of Jesus' resurrection appearances (John 21). Behind the gospels as we now have them, there was a long tradition of stories about Jesus' teaching and miracles repeated by word of mouth before being put into written form. Assuming that all versions referred to the same event, which some commentators doubt, they speak to the future mission of the apostolic church. It appears to be a promise of ultimate success though not without long and difficult toil on the part of the disciple community.
At first, the ekklesia (i.e. the apostolic church) meant simply a group of Jews of humble origins, many of them unlettered and poverty stricken, who had responded to the preaching of the gospel. Then as now, fishing was not always a lucrative occupation, but one which required much skill and patience, hard work and long hours. These men were partners in a small business in which they had invested their whole lives. Catching and marketing of fresh fish, a major food in Galilee at the time, was not always a profitable trade. In that climate, the fish would have to be caught during the night and sold in the marketplace within a few hours. Often the results were disappointing. However, this story is told for its metaphorical significance rather than as a factual vignette of the harsh life of the Galilean fisherman.
Luke has a way of weaving the whole tradition into his story as he tells it. His audience was two generations removed from the events he narrates and unfamiliar with the places in which those events occurred. So he did not have to be concerned about chronological order. His intent was primarily evangelical. For instance, he has Peter call Jesus first "Master," then "Lord." Those are titles which Luke reserves for disciples. Non-disciples used the term, "Teacher." The title "Lord" appears in Luke twenty-one times; twelve of them in pericopes peculiar to Luke. It can be argued that here Luke was thinking in post-resurrection terms when the apostles had fully realized that Jesus was the Messiah for whom such a title was appropriate. As has been pointed out many times, the original creed of the apostolic church was the simple statement, "Jesus is Lord."
So also Peter's confession of sinfulness in his plea that Jesus depart from him is appropriate to a post-resurrection attitude. It reiterates the gospel call to repentance as the antecedent to Christian discipleship. Luke had emphasized this as the message John the Baptist had preached (3:1-20) and which Peter had also proclaimed in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:38. It may also have some reference to Peter's denial of Jesus in the court of the house of Caiaphas (22:54-60).
The late Professor G. B. Caird pointed to Jesus' choice of these hard-working but intensely loyal men, ever aware of their own shortcomings, as those whom he needed to carry the gospel into the world. Does not the present evangelistic environment call for a disciple community of similarly dedicated, loyal and hard-working persons? Certainly not those who may lay claim to moral perfection or spiritual greatness would not fit the requirements. Caird's analysis of this passage is a valuable contribution to the understanding of how prophetic visions and oracles affect us: “On Simon at least the impact he made was a profoundly moral one, resulting in a sense of sin. It was not the miracle that brought him to his knees but the grandeur of sheer goodness.” (Caird, G.B. Saint Luke. The Pelican New Testament Commentary, 1965.)