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Ordinary Time 29 (A)
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Readings for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

1. Isaiah 45, 1 and 4-6
  • I hear the beginning of the reading: Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp.  And I wonder.  How does a Persian monarch, himself worshiped as a god, become the favored of the one God?  Did Cyrus care?  He certainly knew that the Jews were grateful for his edict of the return.  So were other subject peoples in his empire.  I can imagine that he kept this sign of their gratitude, for the sake of Israel my chosen one, just as today’s world leaders keep the honors they receive from many grateful nations.
  • As we learned in world history class, Cyrus was the founder of the great Persian empire, forerunner of modern day Iran.  In his day he planned and achieved conquest far and wide.  But far beyond the ambitions of human empires are the designs of God, who loves his chosen people and uses this king to rescue them from their enemies.  I hear this ultimate put-down to worldly rulers and want to declare it forcefully to the powerful of our own day: Toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me.
  • I agree with a point that the author Bruce Feiler has made.  He has written (Walking the Bible; Where God Was Born) and spoken eloquently of his travels through the lands where the people of the Bible brought their faith in the one God to fruition.  He considers Cyrus as an early champion of freedom of worship for religious minorities in his empire.  He thinks we have much to learn from that, in a time when many religions insist on the exclusive nature of their own faith in God.
  • But back to the scripture.  From the perspective of our family of faith, born out of the faith of Israel, Cyrus is carrying out the will of the one God.  I the Lord have called you by your name and given you your title and armed you. 
  • Climax: Though we begin on earth, at the level of the nations and their rulers, we end with God: I am the Lord; there is no other.
  • Message for our assembly: As we look ahead to the Gospel, and consider our duties to the state and to God, we should remember that it is God who is above our leaders.  We could look at the Gospel in the light of the prophet’s words, that it is not a question of divine right but of a sacred trust toward God’s people.
  • I will challenge myself: to read the passage in the ornate style of an inscription on a plaque, as it were, awarded by God to a king who favors Israel.  I will also find a way to bring out the irony in the inscription.  Though God honors the king, the king is honored as a ‘messiah,’ an instrument for furthering the designs of God.

 

2. I Thessalonians 1, 1-5

  • Students of the scriptures tell us that this is the oldest book in the New Testament.  So I will be reading the opening lines of the oldest book.  What do I hear?
  • The message is plain but the formulas are full of meaning.  I hear the twin greeting to Jews (peace) and Gentiles (grace).  Specific missionaries (Paul, Sylvanus, Timothy) send the letter.  The recipients of the letter are already a community of faith – the church of the Thessalonians – renowned for their work of faith and labor of love.  Clearly the apostle is proud of what the people have achieved in the time since they received the good news.
  • This was a young church and we hear of the accustomed enthusiasm that features most nascent movements.  In it everyone are brothers and sisters loved by God.  The literal translation used in the lectionary is awkward in one place, so I will pause occasionally as I repeat it: your work of faith – and labor in love -- and endurance (pausing very briefly here) in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Climax: In the last sentence I will read today, the missionaries recall this church’s origins: our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.  They do not credit themselves but the Lord for the impressive beginning of this community.
  • The message for our assembly: The three great virtues – faith, love and hope – will ring in my voice.  Do they continue to be the measures of our faithfulness to Christ today?
  • I will challenge myself: To encourage my listeners to build upon the example of the Thessalonians, to meet the challenges of today with a like faith and love.

 

Gospel. Matthew 22, 15-21

  • First there is the set-up, the apparently harmless question, followed by a ‘gotcha’ moment.  Am I talking about an appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows?  Or a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee?  We exhale in relief when our hero steps back from the trap door just before it springs, and how we relish it when our adversary takes the bait.  But this is the Gospel of Matthew!  Is that happening here?  You better believe it.  Listen.
  • The passage begins with the setting.  The Pharisees went off to plot, so they are the protagonists.  They sent their disciples to him.  So there are also initiates here, proving their mettle to their elders!  Such drama!  We see it every day.
  • Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man, not concerned with opinion.   I think it is supposed to sound a little rehearsed, because after all they are only initiates.  Jesus will gather from this as well as their form of dress that they were sent by someone else.  But I will make them sound earnest and free of guile, even in their trap question: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?  I do this not just for dramatic purposes but because the question itself is a timeless one that has been debated and reflected in church-state conflict through the centuries.
  • In my voice Jesus is more impatient than he is sharp with these young lions.  He answers not in indignation but in frustration that the institution would use them in such a demeaning way: Why are you…?  He may be looking up and catching sight of the prime instigators standing over by a temple pillar.  So perhaps he speaks this sentence (and so do I) a little louder.
  • Next I can see him putting his arms around the disciples' shoulders and becoming their rabbi: Okay, I'll play along.  Show me the coin.  I knew you would have one.  Now tell me, whose image is this and whose inscription? 
  • The lesson, ambiguous enough as it stands, is nonetheless forthright and for that reason revolutionary.  But I will treat it as so obvious to everyone that Jesus would speak it for everyone to hear: Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God. 
  • Climax: Then repay to Caesar  Masterful!  Jesus turns the confrontation into a teaching opportunity.  His response can become advice for people in all places.
  • Message for our assembly: By my retelling of the confrontation, and by my awareness of the dynamic that underlies it, I may help my congregation to demand a full interpretation from the homilist.  It is a hot topic with many facile declarations by clergy and laity, and we deserve better of our church.
  • I will challenge myself: Can I capture the tension of the moment? 

Word to Eucharist: What belongs to God?  Our possessions, or our place of honor or dishonor in this parish, or our social airs?  Or perhaps the gifts of love and compassion that we must develop as God's children?  Let us reflect these gifts and a spirit of welcome as we approach the table.

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