29th Sunday in Ordinary Time October 18, 2020
The First Reading
Who is this Cyrus that the Lord uses so "that toward the rising and setting of the sun people may know that there is none other besides me?" Cyrus was the King of Persia, who became an instrument of God in the deliverance of his Chosen People from their captivity by the Babylonians. The Babylonians conquered Judah and began to exile the upper echelon of Israel to Babylonian captivity over a 10 year period beginning in 597 BC. After 60 years of captivity, Cyrus rose to power in the kingdom of Persia and conquered the Babylonians in 539 BC. The following year he issued a decree allowing the deported citizens to return to their homeland. The exodus of Babylon began the following year and continued for several years. The return home to Judea stretched over a period of 25 years according to some estimates. Not everyone was quick to return.
The real point being that Isaiah declared Cyrus actions and benevolence to be the work of God who himself appointed Cyrus to the throne and saw to his successful conquests. He did this not for Cyrus or the Persians, but rather for his Chosen People. Cyrus was merely the instrument God used to deliver his People from their 60 years in exile. The prophet uses beautiful language, when he speaks of this purpose saying, "For the sake of Jacob, my servant of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by your name..." Israel is God's chosen one. That word, chosen, is rich with meaning. It is more than a simple selection, or picking. It is more than the exertion of one's will. It is an expression of desire. We choose something because we desire it. God desires his people. God desires you!
The people ended up in exile because they failed to choose God. They did not desire God in their lives. They didn't want God influencing their lives. They wanted to live lives as they chose rather than how God desired. Sound familiar? Nearly 2500 years separate us from the Chosen People referenced in our pericope from Isaiah, yet there is little difference between their time and our time in this regard. We see more and more in modern society, the attempt to remove religion, God, and faith from public discussion, so that it doesn't infringe on how we want to live our lives. We've beguiled ourselves into thinking that such decisions will preserve our freedom, when the reality is that we become enslaved by our desires and consumed by concern for our individual self. We have made great attempts over the last century to craft God into our image so that we may live the lives we desire rather than the life to which God calls us. Yet Isaiah's final words in this week's reading put us in our proper place. "I am the Lord, there is no other." God is God and we are not.
So there are two questions we need to ask ourselves after hearing this reading from Isaiah. First, "Do I truly desire God?" Second, "Am I willing to allow God to use me as an instrument to minister his love to others?"
What we have in this week's second reading is the opening of Paul's first letter to the church community of Thessalonica. His greetings generally follow a typical format, of wishing the community grace and peace, then offering some form of thanksgiving for the community, and finally the "but" (i.e., the crux of his letter). The wish of grace and peace are important because Paul is acknowledging that God's divine life resides within the community, and because they are living communally, they are living in the peace of Christ Jesus himself. Moreover, Paul acknowledges that the intimacy required for such communal living and grace springs forth from living in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ. Oh, the power of a preposition! That little word "in" packs a powerful punch. Note that Paul doesn't use the word "with." "In" implies oneness, or becoming a part of something, as opposed to "with" which implies an accompanying of sorts.
Paul then goes on to acknowledge that the community is living in faith, hope, and love. These theological virtues form the root of all virtue, the purpose of which is to assist us in our pursuit of holiness, for which the Lord Jesus Christ gave his Spirit. Is our work work of faith? In other words, is what we do, how be behave and conduct ourselves, rooted in our faith or our secular and personal desires? Are our labors labors of love? That is to say, are our thoughts and actions guided by our love for God and others, or are they driven by our love for things like money, power, or even our love of self? Do we endure in hope? Do we hope for things, achievements, personal gain, or do we endure all things because we know with certainty that God has more planned for us? Do we endure in hope because we know that heaven awaits us? These are difficult questions that require us to do some serious soul searching. Looking in the mirror, we might not like what we see, but at least it is a step in the right direction because we acknowledge that there is a need for change.
Which leads us to Paul's "but." The "but" is not a part of this week's pericope, but you can rest assured that it will come to bear and be fleshed out in the weeks ahead. The "but" is Paul's exhortation for us to change. It's one thing to look in the mirror and recognize that we have to change. It is something else entirely to take the steps necessary to bring abut they change.
Lastly, Paul's greeting acknowledges the existence of a triune God. He makes explicit reference to the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. While the word trinity is not found in the Bible, the theological underpinnings for the Holy Trinity begin in Genesis and come to fullest expression in the New Testament. The role of the Spirit in our lives today is often overlooked, but rests squarely in Jesus' sending forth the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. Want to know what's wrong with that image staring back at you in the mirror? Live in the Spirit. Want your labors to be labors of love for God and others? Live in the Spirit. Want to be able to endure all things in hope? Live in the Spirit. Want your works to be grounding in faith? Live in the Spirit. Jesus told us that the Spirit will be our advocate, helper, and guide. What does the Spirit advocate in us? He advocates our call holiness. What does the Spirit help us with? He helps us to grow in holiness. Where does the Spirit guide us? He guides us to the source of all holiness (i.e., God) and an eternal life of holiness (i.e., heaven). The role of the Spirit is to aid you in becoming the saint God created you to be. He's not to be overlooked. We can't afford to.
Here is a familiar story. It comes on the heels of Jesus' public criticism of the chief priests and elders, many of whom were Pharisees. We've heard several parables from Matthew over the last few weeks detailing Jesus' criticism of the religious leadership of his day and their failure to fulfill their sacred obligation to help all God's Chosen People to grow in holiness and faithfulness. The opposition is angry at Jesus, because they recognize the truth of his words. It is much easier to live with oneself when your life is void of mirrors. It allows us to live lives of contentment, when God is really calling us to conversion. The irony is that they acknowledge, though be it with dripping sarcasm, that Jesus is a truthful man and that he teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth. They readily admit that his accusations are true, but it is so much easier not having to look in that mirror.
So the Pharisees begin to plot and scheme because they cannot do what they really want, which is to kill Jesus. They are afraid of the crowds. So in their plotting and scheming they devise a clever plot to turn the crowds against him. They turn to the one thing about which everyone is concerned, the Roman occupation. "Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" What a simple question. What a clever question. What a sinister question. Jesus would be condemned no matter what answer he gave. If he said, "Yes," it would mean that he was supporting the tyranny and oppression of the hated occupiers, which would lead to his condemnation by the crowds. If he said, "No," it would amount to sedition against Rome, and swift retribution and condemnation by the Roman authorities if the Pharisees had their way. In either case, the Pharisees rid themselves of this menace that is forcing them to look into the mirror and admit to the truth he proclaims.
Jesus, using his Godly wisdom, turns the tables on his accusers. It begins with a seemingly innocent and simple request. "Show me the coin" he says, and they produce it! They are now trapped. The man of truth has once again revealed them for who they really are. Roman coins were taboo in Jewish culture at that time. This foreign currency was deemed unclean and thus handling it rendered one unclean and in need of purification. His opponents are in direct possession of the coin! Why? Because they are in collusion with Rome. The Herodians in particular were Roman collaborators who supported Herod and thereby the Romans for political expediency. Maintaining the status quo was good business for those in a position of power.
Then Jesus does something that would have made some cringe. He takes the coin in his hands. That same taboo that convicts the Pharisees and Herodians, now renders Jesus unclean through his touching it. As Jesus does in so many instances, his actions reminds us that the law of God was given to aid man in his pursuit of holiness, but that its purpose had become corrupted so that man was forced to serve the law for sake of the law. Rather than allowing us to live life to the full as God intended for the law, the law was now enslaving the poor and most vulnerable to its precepts which kept them oppressed by their sins. So Jesus cures the sick on the Sabbath. He touches the leper. He handles foreign currency. Jesus will not be confined to taboos because they prevent God's loves from being made manifest when it needs manifestation most. In taking the coin, this truthful man now teaches the way of God in accordance with that truth. Just as what food we put into our bodies cannot make us unclean, but rather the words that come out of our bodies is what makes us unclean, so too the handling of the coin.
"Whose image is this and whose inscription?" Jesus asks. He knows whose it is as do those who handed him the coin. Jesus does not condemn his opponents, but rather challenges them and us, when he says "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." The coin, crafted in the image and likeness of Caesar is his. It belongs to him. Likewise, we are created in the image and likeness of God. We belong to God. Recognizing their hypocrisy, he challenges them to look into the mirror to see the truth before their eyes. They belong to God. They were fashioned in God' image and likeness. Yet, they are not giving themselves to God. Instead they are living life for themselves, enforcing oppressive laws and cumbersome rituals on the people, and colluding with the Romans to preserve their wealth and power. They lead comfortable lives at the expense of others. Sound familiar?
So each of us is called upon to stand before the mirror and face the truth. Are you giving God his due, or are you giving God your leftovers? Have the things of this life become an obstacle to your achieving the holiness required for the next life? Is God a priority in your life, or is he merely a matter of convenience? We all need to take a good hard look in the mirror from time to time. The next time you do, remind yourself with a smile that your are created in the image and likeness of God, that he is your only Lord and God, and that you belong to him. Then pray that he will give you’re the strength and the conviction to live your life for love of him so that he may help you become holy as he is holy.
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