Sunday's Lessons in Context
The Old Testament - The Prophets: The Book of Ezekiel
Ezekiel, whose name means "God strengthens", was the son of Buzi. He was an Israelite priest, possibly a descendant of Zadok, who prophesied to his fellow exiles. His prophetic activity began in 593 B.C.E., about four years after the first exiles arrived in Babylon, and lasted to at least 571 B.C.E. (Jerusalem submitted to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 597 B.C.E. At that time many political and religious leaders, and even the king, Jehoiachin, were exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel may have been among them. Johoiachin's uncle, Zedekiah, became the Babylonian puppet-king. When he rebelled in 587 B.C.E., Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the next wave of exiles were carried off to Babylon.) Ezekiel's beloved wife died in exile. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel prophesied before and after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
Ezekiel's prophecies are delivered as poetry, he sees visions, or he performs some symbolic, dramatic action. Ezekiel is not a "comfortable" book: it is filled with troubling and violent images, including violence against women, who personify Judah and Israel in chapters 16 and 23. (On occasion, Ezekiel does protest or appeal to God in the face of what is communicated to him [4:14; 9:8; 11:13].) His call to proclaim Judah's doom seems to have caused him profound distress (3:14-15). Though writing in Babylon and focused on Jerusalem, Ezekiel comes across as a man of wide learning; he has a sophisticated worldview and awareness of the larger world, commerce, and politics.
Ezekiel, as a priest, was very concerned with the Holiness Code, which dealt with idolatry, ritual purity, and the temple. He castigates Israel for her unfaithfulness to God, her true husband, by going after other lovers, i.e., seeking political alliances with the surrounding nations and for falling into idolatry. He addresses the question of why God allowed God's people to be exiled and the temple razed to the ground. Ezekiel's answer: God is above all a holy being (36:23) who transcends human comprehension, manipulation, and calculation. God's holiness forces God to act to protect God's name. God's allowing the exile is his judgment of Israel's unholiness: faithlessness, idolatry, violence, injustice, lack of mercy. In spite of God's love and care for them, they rebelled against him and went their own way, bringing their ruin on themselves. God does not take pleasure in it. Their future restoration is completely the Lord's action, that the holiness of God's name may be restored and Israel and all the world will know that YHWH (Yahweh) is the Lord. God is holy beyond our understanding and control.
The Epistle: The Book of Philippians
The Philippian church was the first Christian church in Europe (Macedonia, modern day Greece; Philippi was founded in 356 B.C.E. by Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great). Lydia and her household were Paul's first converts there (Acts 16:11-15) and he returned more than once during his ministry. Paul's letter to the Philippians reveals the close and intimate relationship he enjoyed with the members of the Body of Christ at Philippi: Paul and the Philippian Christians loved each other very much. Of all the churches he'd planted, the Philippians had remained faithful to the Gospel and united with one another even though they were facing opposition. In spite of the themes of persecution and suffering, physical and mental, this is Paul's most joyful letter. It is both a letter of thanksgiving to the Philippians for their emotional and material support of his ministry and for God's grace for both himself and them. Because of God's unconditional love and grace, it is he who deserves our ultimate thanks. Paul encourages them, and us, to live out the salvation we have in Christ. And we can do it, because God has promised to be at work in us!
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
The Book of Matthew, written by an unknown Christian about 90 C.E., declares the advent of the Kingdom of God. (The author says, “Kingdom of heaven,” which may be because Jews did not use the name of God. If using English, they will write G-d.) God has drawn near to dwell with God’s people, the church, breaking into the world in the person of Jesus, and in his authority to teach, to cast out demons, heal, and to forgive sins. (Matthew 1:23; 16:16; 28:20). The author tells the story of the life, ministry, and suffering and death of Jesus. Matthew is structured in three parts and includes five important speeches of Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29); The missionary discourse (9:35-10:42); The discourse in parables (13:1-52); The ecclesiological (theological doctrine relating to the church) discourse (17:24-18:35); The eschatological (the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind; i.e., the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the Divine) discourse (24:1-25:46). Matthew stresses forgiveness and the need to forgive.