What is the right relationship between those who believe in God with the secular state in which they live? This question will be posed in the readings, but also is still a challenge in the world of today.
Isaiah 45:1, 4-5
‘Second Isaiah’ was a prophet during the period of the exile of the Hebrews to Babylon. That captivity was about to come to an end in an unexpected way by the rise of Cyrus, king of Persia, whose rule was spreading through the region. He easily conquered Babylon and symbolically ‘took the hand of’ the god Baal-Marduk which was an enthronement ritual of the Babylonian kings. The prophet’s view is that it is not the pagan king, but the Lord who stands behind the historical events, the one who really takes Cyrus ‘by the hand’ and ‘calls him by name’. Even if Cyrus himself is not aware of this deeper truth, Second Isaiah sees this as God’s way of rescuing his chosen people. Because of this, the prophet boldly proclaims Cyrus as the ‘anointed’ which in Hebrew is the word that comes down to us as ‘Messiah’ and was never elsewhere used in the Old Testament for any non-Israelite king. The message was that God could work through the secular powers of the world, even when they seemed to be acting by their own will.
Second Isaiah though does not want any doubt that redemption is God’s action and not the power of any other nations’ gods or rulers, and reminds the people that there is only one true God, only one with true power. Our translation ‘apart from me, all is nothing’ can also be phrased as ‘apart from me, there is no other’ – no other god.
Psalm 95/96:1, 3-5, 7-10
The response takes up the belief in God as the true Lord, the true power behind what happens in history. The call to ‘give glory’ and ‘worship’ may be seen, in the light of the gospel selection, as what we should ‘give back’ to God.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
This is generally thought to be the earliest book of the New Testament written about 50 AD to some of Paul’s converts. who were living in one of the large cities of the Roman Empire. An abbreviated account of St Paul’s preaching there is found in Acts 17:1-9. The tone of the book is largely joyful and with praise for the recipients for how eagerly they have followed the new way of life. The letter shows us how Paul makes use of the common letter style of the period. The writers of that time first identify him/herself and then send wishes or favour from the gods. Here Paul associates in his greeting the two who worked with him in the earlier mission. In his own letter, he will usually then express thanksgiving and blessings, and often work in a hint of the purpose of the letter. In this selection, we have the first linking of three basic virtues – faith, love/charity and hope – as Paul describes how these are displayed in the lives of a good Christian. The words could also be translated ‘shown your faith in action, your labours prompted of love, and steadfastness [or perseverance] in hope.’
Another point important to him is the power of the Holy Spirit, which was sometimes in the new churches shown in ‘charisms’ such as prophecy and praying in tongues, but the essential point is that God has inspired both the preaching and the response.
Gospel Acclamation John:17-17
We do not have a ‘year’ dedicated to John’s Gospel as we do for the other three evangelists, but often the verse before the gospel reading is taken from that book. Here is a pairing of two frequent themes in John, the Word and ‘Truth’. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is called ‘the Word of God’. For John ‘truth’ is more than acknowledging something to be factually so – the word is perhaps closer to our concept of ‘Reality’ or what is most deeply known. As we stand to ‘acclaim’ the gospel, we are expressing our faith in both the ‘word’ of the text and Jesus as Word.
After three parables aimed at the Jewish leaders, Matthew collects three stories of Jesus challenged by the authorities in Jerusalem. The background is important in this one. Rome had imposed direct rule in Judea in 6 AD, with a ‘poll tax’ to be paid by every one over the age of 12, including slaves. This was so upsetting to the people of Israel that it sparked a revolt shortly before this period. Actively fighting against Rome was in Jesus time urged by the Zealot party in Judea. Although people would pay the tax for their own safety, they would not respect one who defended the power of the Romans. Yet if Jesus would speak out as against it, he could be denounced to the civil authorities. (In his parallel passage Luke expressly points this out.) The ‘Herodians’ at this point are not easy to identify although clearly those who supported the family of Herod the Great, whose son Herod Antipas was Tetrarch of Galilee during Jesus time. Herod had come to power by supporting Roman rule and benefiting from the power they gave him.
So those who come to Jesus represented the two opposing views and if he chose either, there would be trouble from either the people or the Roman rulers. They are well aware of this, although they make a pretence of praising him and seeking an ‘objective opinion.’ Matthew lets us know right away that they want only to trap Jesus in this dilemma. Whether it was ‘lawful’ or ‘permissible’ was about obeying the Law but about a moral issue. Jesus first catches them out by asking for the coin that was required for the tax. This suggests to some commentators that he and his group of disciples did not carry much money, but the main point is that the questioners themselves were shown to use Caesar’s coinage. The picture on the denarius was the current emperor and the Latin inscription around his head was ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus son of the divine Caesar’. On the reverse of the coin was ‘High Priest’. R. T. France comments, ‘the two titles together could hardly be more calculated to offend Jewish piety.’
Jesus short response first shows that they have for convenience accepted the governing of the Romans, and therefore owe the tax payment; this is a civil matter and need not be seen as acknowledging Caesar’s claims to divinity and priesthood. But he does not leave it there: of far more importance in Jesus’ teaching is to ‘give back’ to God the fruits of obedience and worship. In the previous parables, he has warned the leaders of their failure to accept God’s offer of the Kingdom made through Jesus, and here is a direct challenge to them to get their priorities straight.
While we may find amusement in how Jesus’ bests his opponents, we too can be challenged about how well we give to God what is due.