OPENING PRAYER: Isaiah 24
Isaiah 45:1, 4 – 6
This Sunday, we will again hear from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Since it is from chapter 45, we know that it is from Deutero-Isaiah. We recall that Deutero-Isaiah prophesied 587 – 539BC, during the Babylonian exile. During this time, the political scene in the Ancient Near East changed dramatically as a result of the rise of Cyrus II (the Great). Until he came into power in 559BC, the great powers controlling the Ancient Near East were usually Semites, originally of the Arabian Peninsula and later known as Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians. Cyrus was a Persian, of Indo-European background, descended from a people who had migrated out of Europe to settle in the area southeast of Babylon. At first, Cyrus was the king of Anshan, a vassal of Babylon. He was a brave and innovative warrior, however, and within 20 years, he took over all of Babylon. According to Deutero-Isaiah, he was anointed by God to achieve God’s plan to free the Israelites in exile. Let’s read a little from Isaiah 41 – 44 before we read what we will hear this Sunday to give us a better picture (read Is 41:1-4, 25; 44:24-28).
Of course, it’s important to get the bigger picture about Cyrus. Understandably, the Jewish people were concerned only about themselves so their writings deal only with how Cyrus treated them and they attributed this favorable treatment to their God. But, if you read the Cyrus Cylinder (rediscovered in the 1800’s and now on display in the British Museum in London), you will note that Cyrus had allowed peoples of many nations enslaved by the Babylonians to return to their homeland and resume the worship of their gods and goddesses:
From [Babylon] to Aššur and (from) Susa, Agade, Ešnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there, to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings. In addition, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I settled in their habitations, in pleasing abodes, the gods of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus, to the anger of the lord of the gods, had brought into Babylon. (lines 30–33)
Now, we can read the passage we will hear on Sunday with a fuller understanding. We will hear a section of the divine decree announcing the anointing and royal enthronement of Cyrus.
1 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:
Anointed: in Hebrew, meshiah, from which the word “Messiah” is derived; from its Greek translation Christos, we have the name “Christ.” Applied to kings, “anointed” originally referred only to those of Israel, but it is here given to Cyrus because he is the agent of the Lord. This is the only place in the Old Testament where a foreigner is called the Lord’s “anointed.”- משיח – Χριστος.
whose right hand I grasp: According to ancient drawings, Babylonian kings grasped the hand of their patron god, Bel-Marduk at their coronations.
2 I will go before you and level the mountains; Bronze doors I will shatter, and iron bars I will snap.
Bronze doors: of Babylon.
3 I will give you treasures out of the darkness, and riches that have been hidden away, That you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.
4 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.
though you knew me not: without even knowing it, Cyrus has been anointed by God and has done God’s will.
5 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,
I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. During the exile and afterward, the prophets started teaching the people of Israel that there is only one God – their God.
6 so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun men may know that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is no other;
men: all people, including the Gentiles, will come to know the true God; cf also 45:20-25.
Matthew 22: 15 – 21
This week, we continue to hear from Matthew’s Gospel, picking up right where we left off last week. This passage presents a discussion that the Pharisees held with Jesus through their disciples ostensibly in response to his three parables – that we have heard over the past three Sundays (two sons, tenants, wedding feast) – through which he condemns them. With this discussion, the series of controversies between Jesus and the representatives of Judaism that started in 21:23 (see the note on Matthew 21:23-27) is resumed after the three parables that we have seen over the past three weeks. As in the first (Matthew 21:23-27), here and in the three following disputes, Matthew follows his Marcan source (cf. Mk 12:13-17) with few modifications; Luke’s version (cf. Lk 20:20-26) is more extensively altered. It is clear that they are trying to trap Jesus through his speech but, as we will see, he entraps them.
15 Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech.
The Pharisees: as you will read in your footnotes, while Matthew retains the Marcan union of Pharisees and Herodians in this account, he clearly emphasizes the Pharisees’ part. They alone are mentioned here, and the Herodians are joined with them only in a prepositional phrase of Matthew 22:16.
Entrap him in speech: as your footnotes indicate, the question that they will pose is intended to force Jesus to take either a position contrary to that held by the majority of the people or one that will bring him into conflict with the Roman authorities.
16 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.
Herodians: see the note on Mark 3:6. The Herodians were supporters of the dynasty of Herod, represented at the time by Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. Since Herodian fortunes were founded on unswerving loyalty to Rome, they favored payment of the tax; the Pharisees did not. The Pharisees sided with the Zealots, who refused to admit subjection of God’s people to a foreign power, but were not willing to use force to achieve independence. So, Jesus’ answer to the question is bound to alienate one party or the other, as well as put Jesus in an adversarial relationship with either the Romans or many of his fellow Jews.
17 Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Is it lawful: the law to which they refer is the law of God found in the Torah.
18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin.
They handed him the Roman coin: their readiness in producing the money implies their use of it and their acceptance of the financial advantages of the Roman administration in Palestine. The right to mint coinage is an act of sovereignty and it was jealously guarded by the Roman government. The minting of coins without authorization was an act of rebellion. And yet, as we know, the Jews minted coins to be used in the temple area; this must have been permitted by the Romans, probably because the Jewish leaders paid the Romans to arrive at some kind of accommodation.
20 He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
Whose image: the coin provides an answer to the question: it belongs to Caesar and it is within his power to demand it.
21 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.”
Caesar’s: the emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37).
Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar: as you will read in the footnotes, those who willingly use the coin that is Caesar’s should repay him in kind. The answer avoids taking sides in the question of the lawfulness of the tax. Jesus thus rejects the position of the Zealots without accepting the position of the Herodians. Again, his answer evades the question rather than solving it. He does not appeal to the right but simply to the de facto existence of Caesar’s power, symbolized by Caesar’s coinage. The declaration “give to Caesar…” offers no basis for a theory of politics. Jesus did not intend to divide the world into areas belonging to Caesar and God, each with his respective and exclusive jurisdiction. Nor did he answer the question of what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.
If you think about it, however, what could belong to Caesar that doesn’t already belong to God? Let’s remember Psalm 24, which begins with: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.”
To God what belongs to God: Jesus raises the debate to a new level. Those who have hypocritically asked about tax in respect to its relation to the law of God should be concerned rather with repaying God with the good deeds that are his due (cf. Matthew 21:41, 43).
1 Thessalonians 1:1 – 5b
After completing Paul’s letter to the Philippians last week, we next hear from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessalonica. Paul arrived in Thessalonica in 50AD after being arrested and expelled from Philippi. He apparently spent only a few months here before the Jews, jealous of his success, stirred up a mob against him and forced his expulsion. You will want to read Acts 16:11, and then 16:16 – 17:10 to understand the timeline of Paul’s journey that leads up to this Sunday’s reading. Despite his short stay in Thessalonica, the Christian community thrived and retained a very cordial relationship with Paul. We will hear from this letter for the next several weeks. Let’s study the very beginning of it in preparation for hearing it on Sunday.
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace.
On the address, see the note on Romans 1:1-7.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly
3 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,
Faith . . . love . . . hope: this, along with 1 Thes 5:8, is the earliest mention in Christian literature of the three “theological virtues” (see 1 Cor 13:13). The order here stresses eschatological hope, in line with the letter’s emphasis on the Lord’s second, triumphal coming, or parousia (1 Thes 10; 2:12,19; 3:13; 4:13-5:11; 5:23).
4 knowing, brothers loved by God, how you were chosen.
5 For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the holy Spirit and (with) much conviction.
The message we hear in this week’s readings has a wonderful unity: there is only one God and we are to render him – and him, alone – fitting praise and service. God’s word, in turn, is a matter of power and strength, to be lived with conviction of heart.