Oct 19, 2014: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Isaiah 45:1, 4-6

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before him,
and making kings run in his service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,
I have called you by your name,
giving you a title, though you knew me not.
I am the LORD and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun
people may know that there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, there is no other.

Today’s first reading resembles a royal decree, a formal statement wherein God addresses a king.  This particular decree is made extraordinary by the fact that the God of Israel addresses a Persian king, revealing the instrumentality of a non-Israelite in the salvation of the people of Israel.

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,

Cyrus was the Persian ruler who permitted the Israelites to return from captivity in Babylon to their homeland, and there to rebuild their Temple (see Ezra 1:1-8).

Here is is called “God’s anointed,” a title ascribed to kings, but to Israelite kings and particularly Davidic kings.  Here it is given to Cyrus because he is an agent of the Lord.

whose right hand I grasp,

Several artifacts from the ancient world depict a ceremony wherein a god reaches out to one who would be king.  The act of grasping his hand was seen as a conferral of royal authority, giving divine legitimation to the role Cyrus will play in the history of Israel.

subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred: For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one,

The author describes all that Cyrus will do for the sake of the Israelites (Jacob-Israel).

I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. 

Cyrus the foreigner is the agent of the release of the Israelites, but their release is for the sake of the enlightenment of the foreign nations.

I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. 

It is one thing for God to work through the Israelites, but if the God of one people is seen to work marvels through the instrumentality of another people, it is easy to conclude there is but one God who works through all — which is precisely what is being stated here.

It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun men may know that there is none besides me.

“The rising and the setting of the sun” mark the boundaries of the day.  Used here, the phrase implies that throughout the entire day, God will be revered as the only God.

I am the LORD, there is no other.

This self-declaration seems to be a standardized expression (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 1 Kings 8:60), particularly in the writings of Isaiah (Isaiah 45:5, 6, 14, 18, 21, 22; 46:9).  This expression could well be God’s primary self-identification.

2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you,
remembering you in our prayers,
unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love
and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,
before our God and Father,
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God,
how you were chosen.
For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.

Accompanied by Silas, Saint Paul arrived at Thessalonica in the course of his second missionary journey after leaving Philippi around the summer of the year 50 AD. It was one of the most important cities in the Roman province of Macedonia.  Its busy port and strategic position on important trade routes meant that many people, mainly Greeks, gravitated to Thessalonica in search of employment. As far as religion was concerned, it was a typical pagan city, although it had a sizeable Jewish community with its own synagogue.

In keeping with his custom, Paul went first to the synagogue to proclaim the Good News: Jesus was the Messiah; the Old Testament prophesies had come true in him, he had redeemed mankind by his passion, death, and resurrection. As a result of his teaching, many Jews and Gentiles came to believe, including “not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17:4). His success earned him the envy of certain Jews who organized demonstrations and attacked the house where he was staying. This led to Paul and his companions leaving Thessalonica before the instruction of the converts was complete. The new converts also encountered persecution by the Jews.

Because of this, as soon as Paul reached Athens, he sent Timothy to Thessalonica to complete the catechetical work that had been left unfinished. Upon his return to Paul (who was in Corinth by this time), Timothy reported that the Thessalonians were persevering in faith and charity despite still being harassed. Timothy also reported that certain questions were troubling the Thessalonians: topics such as life after death and the second coming of Christ. These questions prompted Paul to write this first letter.

Today we hear the opening greeting of this letter.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy 

The beginning of this letter is in the typical fashion of a Hellenistic letter: it mentions the writer(s) , the recipient(s), and a greeting.

Paul writes in his own name and in the names of his two missionary companions, Silvanus and Timothy.  Silvanus is the Latin form of the name Silas, Paul’s companion during his second missionary journey (Acts 15:40-18:5).

to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 

Note that the letter is addressed not to an individual, but to a gathering of Christians.

grace to you and peace.

The wish for grace (cháris) and peace (eirēnē) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew shālôm.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers,

Where the typical Hellenistic letter included a wish for good fortune, Paul typically includes a statement of thanksgiving, as he does here.

unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Paul expresses gratitude on behalf of all three of the letter’s authors for their fidelity to the gospel that was preached to them.  In fact, he states that the Thessalonians are always in their prayers.

before our God and Father, knowing, brothers loved by God, how you were chosen.

Paul knew the extent to which they had been transformed through the gospel and how faithful they have been to its message.  He was a direct witness to the effects of God’s love in their lives.

For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.

Having praised them — and in doing so, also encouraged them — Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the circumstances of their conversion.  They accepted the gospel primarily through Paul’s preaching but also through the power of the Holy Spirit.

“For to give thanks to God for them is the act of one testifying to how they have advanced in the faith. Not only are the Thessalonians praised by Paul, but Paul thanks God for them, as though God Himself had accomplished everything. Paul also teaches them to be moderate in their self-estimation, all but saying that all their growth is from the power of God.” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 398-404), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians 1]

Gospel – Matthew 22:15-21

The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”

Our gospel reading picks up from last week’s reading, where we find Jesus once again in a battle of wits with the religious leaders of the people.

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech.

While the purpose of the encounter is the entrapment of Jesus, the underlying issue is the possibility of being faithful both to God and to a secular state.

They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians,

The Pharisees did not seem to approve of the Gentile rule over the Jewish people.  The Herodians, on the other hand, were Roman loyalists.

saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.

They begin with words of flattery, which are intended to set the trap.  If Jesus is as forthright in his speech and as free of human respect as they describe, he will certainly speak his mind clearly and ensnare himself.

Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

The law to which they are referring is the law of God.

The Pharisees were vehemently opposed to Roman occupation; the Herodians, in contrast, had made their peace with it and sometimes even benefited from it.  Accordingly, Herodians favored the payment of taxes to Rome; the Pharisees opposed it.

By working together to approach Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians create a situation in they think Jesus will be forced to alienate some of his hearers and therefore be shamed in the sight of all.

There is also another level to this trap.  The words of flattery indicates that those posing the question expect Jesus to oppose the Roman tax; if he did so, he would technically be subject to arrest by Roman authorities.

Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?

Jesus is not taken in by their flattery.  He knows what they are trying to do, and he knows what is at stake.

Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin.

The coin itself was abhorrent to the Jewish people, for it contained the image of Caesar along with titles that accorded him both political honor and divine status, both of which violated Jewish law.  In deference to Jewish sensitivities, imageless copper coins were used in ordinary commercial exchange.

Jesus does not seem to have one of the questionable coins, but without hesitation his antagonists are able to produce one.  Just by having one in their possession, they have been caught in their own trap.

He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.”

Jesus responds to their initial inquiry with a question of his own, putting them on the defensive.

The inscription read, “Tiberius Caesar Son Of The Divine Augustus, Great High Priest.”

At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

Jesus directs them to “give back” or “repay” (apodídōmi) what is owed to both Caesar (the emperor Tiberius) and God.  Besides exonerating him from possible political or religious reproach, his response suggests that one can indeed be loyal both to a religious tradition and to a secular power.  It can be very difficult at times, as religious and secular authorities can certainly conflict, but it is possible.

By instructing them to also repay to God what is God’s, Jesus raises the debate to a new level.  Those who have hypocritically asked about tax in its relation to the law of God should be instead concerned with repaying God with the faithfulness and good deeds that are his due.

Once again Jesus gains honor in the sight of the people, while his antagonists are disgraced.

Connections and Themes

All peoples.  The frequency with which we consider the question of insider-outsider is an indication of how important universalism and the breaking down of boundaries is within our religious tradition.  All peoples, all lands, are called on to praise God.  And all the major religions of the world do just that.  Human beings have always realized that, in comparison with the grandeur and expansiveness of the universe within which they live, they are weak and vulnerable creatures.  This has led them to believe in and offer homage to a divine being, or beings.  Praise of God has always been an expression of awe and gratitude as well as humility.

Our religious tradition further tells us that just as all reality originated from the mystery we call God and is held in existence by this same God, so all reality will ultimately be brought together again in the embrace of God.  From various points of view this embrace has been called salvation or enlightenment or fulfillment.  However it is characterized, there is something within the human heart that draws us to God and to this definitive realization.  In this there are no outsiders: all are insiders.

Insider-outsider. It’s human beings who categorize people as insiders or outsiders.  They are the ones who define and then draw boundaries based on gender, race, age, class, culture, talent — the list could go on and on.  God does not abide by such criteria.  God cares about and cares for all people (Isaiah 19:25), and God works through all people to accomplish good in the world.  Even ancient Israel, as ethnocentric as it was, acknowledged this.  Its return from Babylonian exile, an event that was characterized as a second exodus and that marked the rebirth of the nation, is credited to Cyrus, a Persian ruler.

In our day we have witnessed the non-violent overthrow of a mighty nation through the agency of Gandhi, a diminutive Hindu of Indian origin, and the extraordinary peaceful resistance to racial discrimination led by Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister.  Susan B. Anthony struggled to ensure that women in the United States were enfranchised, and Nelson Mandela did the same for black Africans in South Africa.  Each one of these individuals was an outsider in his or her society, yet God worked through them to break down these barriers of separation.  The outsiders have become insiders and have brought others inside with them.

Criteria for deciding.  If neither gender, nor race, nor age, nor class, nor culture qualifies one for being an insider, what does?  Today’s readings suggest it is service of others.  Whether Cyrus was aware of the implication of his foreign policy or not, he issued a decree allowing captive peoples to return to their homelands.  Paul and Silvanus and Timothy gained entry into various communities of the ancient world as they preached the good news of the gospel to people of cultures not their own.  In breaking down the walls of prejudice, the social activists of our own age liberated not only the oppressed groups to which they belonged but also those who had oppressed them.  The lives of these dynamic people show us that service of others draws them into our circles and encircles us in theirs.

There is an underside to this issue.  There are those who by their conduct make themselves outsiders to the group.  They refuse to help, or, even worse, they seek the undoing of others.  Those who tried to trick Jesus in today’s gospel are an example of this.  By birth they belonged to the People of God, but their actions belied the covenant relationship of which they boasted.

With open arms God invites all into an embrace of love.  As we have been embraced by God, so we are called to embrace all others.

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