22nd October 2017
It is a time when the Babylonian empire is coming to an end. Many Jews are in exile there, bemoaning there lot by the rivers of Babylon (see Psalm 137, made into a song). But after a generation and a time that somewhat transformed their religion, God will set them free. The empire is being overtaken by one called Cyrus. The reading we have today (part of Isaiah 45:1-6) actually mentions this non-Jewish leader by name, thus dating the text to around 530 BC. The return will be a momentous experience for the chosen people of God. But as part of the dramatic transformation in their religion at this time, this text has God addressing Cyrus and calling him the anointed one – a phrase that in the original Hebrew is Messiah and in Greek is Christos. This is a word that we now think of as referring only to Jesus so it also gives us pause for thought. This may well mean that everyone who is contributing to the world how God wants it, is doing so through the wish and blessing of God. Maybe Christians, who share this name, should make sure we live up to it. The text implies that many without claiming to or even recognising any God can nevertheless be doing His will even though unknowingly. We must ask are we who should know the will of God for us, doing what we should?
The Second Reading is the beginning of the First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul, together with Silvanus and Timothy, went initially about 50 AD to this capital city of Macedonia in Greece. There was a large community of Jews there and for the first few weeks he preached in their synagogue. But there were a lot of Gentiles who were enthusiastic in other religious cults as well; it was mostly these that came to hear the word preached; they gathered in the house of one called Jason and initiated the Christian community there; the Jews caused trouble for them and Paul and companions had to leave, according to the account in Acts (17:1-9). The opening of the letter shows the feelings Paul had for them now that they had formed into a strong community. Going straight to the important elements of their new found religion, which are also central for us, he notes their faith, their works of charity and the firm confidence – which we often name as faith hope and charity. Like them we too are chosen for particular roles in the world.
In the gospel extract we read today, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life is now moving towards its completion; it is clear that the Jewish leaders want rid of him, for his way of life is such a challenge to theirs; it also proved almost incomprehensible to his disciples when he tried to explain to them what he foresaw his fate would be (what we read as predictions of his passion). It is the Pharisees who want to entrap Jesus so as to have a case against him to put to the courts. They sent their disciples to link up with the enthusiasts for king Herod who ruled under the Roman emperor, with whom they would not want directly to co-operate themselves. But what they had to say to Jesus, according to Matthew, showed a real grasp of the driving force of Jesus’ life: addressing him as teacher, they said he spoke the truth, the truth about God, and he showed no partiality but rather indifference to people’s opinion of him. The question is about the legality of paying tax to the Roman emperor; Jesus is a Jew and in an occupied country; Jesus is known to be fearlessly outspoken for what he thinks is right. This is a good entrapment question for it seems the answer must undermine either the Jewish tradition or the Roman requirements, and whichever way he chooses they have something against Jesus; the coin for this poll-tax attributed divinity to Caesar which a Jew couldn’t agree to, but refusal to pay it would offend those supporting Roman rule. When we are caught in a dilemma because of our beliefs, we must either walk away or have a very clever answer to the situation as Jesus did.