Oct 18, 2020: 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 is from the section of Isaiah referred to as Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), which was written between 587 and 539 BC. This was the time of the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history, when the Babylonians had reduced the Temple and the city of Jerusalem to ruins, carried the important people of Judah into captivity, and demolished Judah as a nation.

Isaiah offers hope to the exiles by assuring them that God would bring them back to the holy land and that they would be God’s instrument of revelation to other nations.

In today’s reading, the prophet is telling the exiles that Cyrus, the Persian who, in turn, is now conquering the Babylonians, is God’s instrument of saving power.

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,

The passage resembles a royal decree, a formal statement wherein God addresses a king. This particular decree is quite extraordinary due to the fact that the God of Israel is addressing a Persian king, revealing the instrumentality of a non-Israelite in the salvation of the people of Israel.

Interestingly, Cyrus is referred to as “God’s anointed,” a title ascribed to favored Israelite kings (like David), some prophets, and some priests. Here that title is given to Cyrus because he is an agent of the Lord.

Cyrus went on to permit the Israelites to return from captivity in Babylon to their homeland, and there to rebuild their Temple (see Ezra 1:1-8).

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. 

Even though Cyrus is a pagan, God has chosen him to free the Israelites from their exile in Babylon. God often works through people who may not even recognize his name.

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

It’s 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 God will be revered as the only God throughout the entire day — that is, continually.

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.

Today we begin a study of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. This letter will provide our second readings for the remaining five weeks of the liturgical year.

Saint Paul arrived at Thessalonica around the summer of the year 50 AD. Being a seaport on the important Roman road called Via Egnatia, it was one of the most important cities in the Roman province of Macedonia. If the gospel message were to take hold there, Christianity would be more easily able to move both east and west — which is exactly what happened.

Paul’s success in preaching the gospel in Thessalonica earned him the derision of the local Jewish community, who harassed the new Christian converts and attacked Paul and his companions, running them out of the city.

Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to finish teaching the new converts the gospel. 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, which is the earliest writing in all the New Testament.

Today we hear Paul’s opening greeting.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace.

Paul follows the traditional way of beginning a letter in both Greco-Roman and Jewish society: it mentions the writer(s), the recipient(s), and a greeting. He writes on behalf of himself and his two missionary companions, Silvanus and Timothy.

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,

Next comes a section of thanksgiving.

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

Paul expresses gratitude for their fidelity to the gospel, highlighting three of their responses: their work of faith, their labor of love (agapé), and their patient endurance of suffering in hope (of the Lord’s second coming).

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, finding Jesus once again in a battle of wits with the religious leaders of the people. At issue is the possibility of being faithful both to God and to a secular state.

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians,

Instead of the chief priests and elders, now it’s the Pharisees and Herodians who are plotting against Jesus.

The Pharisees were a lay group within Judaism who devoted themselves to observing a strict interpretation of the law.

The Herodians were supporters of Herod the Great, who was granted the title of “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate. The support he received from the Roman Empire enabled him to maintain his authority over Judea.

Though these groups had little in common, they often teamed up in opposing Jesus.

saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 

They begin with words oozing of charm and flattery, which are intended to set a trap. If the Pharisees in particular really believed these words, they would listen to Jesus rather than contesting him at every opportunity.

And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.

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 and the Pharisees were totally against it for religious reasons. How could a God-fearing Jew pay taxes to an emperor who considered himself a god?

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

But there is another level to this trap: If Jesus opposes paying the Roman tax, as they expected him to, they could have him arrested for sedition, for encouraging his fellow Jews to revolt against Roman authorities.

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

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

He calls them out as hypocrites because both groups were in fact publicly paying the tax, and their act of being perplexed by this issue was completely fake.

Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” 

The coin itself was abhorrent to the Jewish people. It bore the image of Caesar along with titles that accorded him political honor and divine status, both of which violated Jewish law. To pay such a coin in tribute could be looked upon as dealing in graven images and as a form of idolatry. (To avoid this conundrum in daily life, imageless copper coins were used in ordinary commercial exchange.)

Then they handed him the Roman coin.

Jesus doesn’t seem to have one of the questionable coins, but notice that his antagonists are able to produce one without hesitation. They have already compromised their beliefs by carrying around these graven images with them. The Pharisees have lost their credibility.

He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” 

Jesus asks a question dripping with Socratic irony. He is not asking in order to learn something but in order to teach something. Everyone obviously knows the answer.

They replied, “Caesar’s.”

The coin’s 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.

This answer has two meanings, both intended. The Pharisees could interpret these words to mean, “Since Caesar’s picture is on the coin, it must be Caesar’s. We don’t deal in graven images.” The Herodians could interpret these words to mean, “Pay your taxes.” The trap has failed.

In one master stroke, Jesus invites them to work out for themselves the proper interplay of political and religious loyalty. This suggests that one can indeed be loyal both to a religious tradition and to a secular power. It can be very difficult at times, but it is possible.

In addition to escaping their trap, he has also offered a profound teaching. In answering a question about taxes, Jesus redirects the conversation by adding a mandate to also give to God what is God’s.

And what belongs to God? Our very lives.

Connections and Themes

All peoples.  The frequency with which we consider the question of insider-outsider is an indication of how important universalism 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.

Humans have always realized that, in comparison with the grandeur and expansiveness of the universe, 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 and is held in existence by God, so all reality will ultimately be brought together again in God’s embrace. From various points of view, this embrace has been called salvation or enlightenment or fulfillment. However it is described, 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 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 marked the rebirth of the nation, is credited to Cyrus, a Persian ruler, an outsider extraordinaire.

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’s service to 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 his companions 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 to 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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