29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
There are some intriguing cultural issues involved in today’s readings that give us insights into the importance of having some understanding of the world of the text.
That is, any text without due consideration of its context can be vulnerable to a variety of interpretations, some of which may be light years away from what the original writer intended.
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Today’s extract from the anonymous prophet we generally refer to as Second Isaiah is part of the message of reassurance and hope that colours the writings of this 6th century mystic and poet. Isaiah of Jerusalem, whose prophecies are contained in chapters 1-39 of this book, was active around the 750s BC and warned the rulers of the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel of the punishment that would be brought on by their hubris and social injustice.
Second Isaiah living 150 years after Isaiah of Jerusalem experienced the Babylonian exile. His prophecy is focused on the covenant that Israel has with their God and the close connection they should strive to maintain with God. His writings (chapters 40-55) portray his strong belief that God was guiding history and would ultimately rescue the people of Israel in a second exodus from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Second Isaiah and the Jewish people in general had no great love for the Persians, but because they overtook the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish captives to go back home, they were seen as literal godsends. The prophet depicts Cyrus the Great of Persia as God’s instrument in delivering the Jewish people from captivity in Babylon.
Cyrus, then, is seen as God’s anointed one, that is, messiah, who is unwittingly acting as the agent for Israel’s salvation.
The poet tells us by particular emphasis that God selected Cyrus personally to carry out this special task, ‘I have called you by your name.’
Cyrus probably never read these verses and had no idea that he was regarded as carrying out God’s plan. But this poetic outpouring was written by the prophet for his own people, to remind them of the place of God in their lives. They are brought back to an awareness of who the Creator God is and how their lives are truly fulfilled when they are directed towards the Presence.
The poet is bringing home one of the key features of sound relationship – maintaining connection. Relationships really work when there is engagement to the extent where parties meet somewhere in the middle. We all know how relationships can curdle when one party does most of the giving while the other party does most of the taking. That kind of setup can lead to disengagement that drains the freshness out of any union.
Maybe we can put a new sparkle into the way we see the divine in other people
‘Sing a new song to the Lord’ cries out to us to freshen up our connection with God. It’s not a call to an emotional response but to a fresh attitude.
Maybe we can all put new life into our priorities and a new sparkle into the way we see the divine in other people.
Psalm 40 echoes the same idea where the poet was lifted out of darkness and depression and then turned his face full-on into the sunlight and sings, ‘(the Lord) has put a new song in my mouth/ a song of praise to our God.’ Here is the exuberance that comes from naming our blessings and taking stock of the good things that flavour our lives. We have our ups and downs but it’s the good that keeps us striving.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
Of the letters we have of St Paul this one to the Christian community in Thessalonica is the earliest, written probably around 50/51 AD. Paul and his companion Silvanus (Silas) had an unhappy experience in Philippi, in northern Greece, where they had been accused of saying things in public that conflicted with Roman values, and for that they were put in prison. An earthquake damaged part of the prison and Paul and Silas were able to get away to Thessalonica and then on to Athens. Timothy joined Paul in Athens and Paul sent him to Thessalonica to give some support to the community there. Timothy reported back to Paul saying the Thessalonians were all living up to their commitment to Jesus Christ, and this prompted Paul to write them an encouraging letter.
The greatest shot in the arm - encouragement
One of the outstanding characteristics of Paul that is very often overlooked is the encouragement he extended to all those he encountered. Luke makes a feature of this quality in his Acts of the Apostles as he describes Paul arriving in a town and offering support and encouragement to the Christians there. He repeats expressions like, ‘After encouraging the community there he journeyed on to...’ (Acts 20:1-2). The whole of today’s reading from the opening of 1 Thessalonians is a warm and affectionate burst of respect, recognition and encouragement.
The greatest shot in the arm we can give to someone is to offer genuine encouragement. It is far more effective than praise because it shows respect and interest in a person’s effort or endeavour. Praise tends to focus on the ‘doer’ and risks pandering to ego and creating ‘approval junkies’ who become slaves to the craving for recognition. This craving is displayed in the modern disease of celebrity worship where people lose themselves by trying to satisfy the expectations of others. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said, ‘What does it profit people if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’ (Luke 9:25).
There are some fascinating cultural details in this gospel reading that show us a typical Jewish exchange taking place. The Pharisees sent some of their number to set a trap for Jesus. These men were joined by members of the Herodian party, that is, supporters of the house of Herod whose goals were political but who were also religiously motivated. They teamed up with the Pharisees in their opposition to the teachings of Jesus. Their approach begins with words of obvious and unashamed flattery designed to force Jesus to take sides. The irony is that the statement is accurate and reflects the fact that Jesus was a mature and integral personality who did not live and act to satisfy the expectations of others.
Jesus was a risk-taker – unafraid of being vulnerable and open in his relationships
One telling part of his opponents’ statement is that Jesus was not afraid of anyone, which meant he was not afraid of criticism or disapproval.
He was prepared to meet everyone with respect and compassion, and the implication is that he was a risk-taker and not afraid to be vulnerable and open in his relationships.
These men must have been taken aback when Jesus first called them hypocrites, revealing his awareness of their plot and then avoided a direct answer by asking for a coin used to pay the poll tax. So far in this exchange nothing could be more Jewish. The question is, will Jesus present as a revolutionary by challenging the taxes or will he come across as a supporter of Rome by favouring the taxes and risk losing support from many of his followers? His answer supports the legitimacy of fair taxes but also prioritises the honour and dedication due to God. Checkmate!
The opponents have no comeback because Jesus, in brilliant Jewish fashion, has not settled in favour of one side or the other. The final verse of this passage is omitted from today’s reading. Pity! because it says that those present were amazed at his response and then went away, no doubt with much ‘rhubarbing’. In this and so many other cases Jesus exhibits his finely tuned knack of confounding people’s expectations.
These seven verses show that Jesus is not a political revolutionary, but then nobody could be in doubt about his values and the fact that he sits squarely in the tradition of Israel’s prophets who campaigned forcefully and critically for drastic changes in Israelite society. The teachings and behaviour of Jesus mark him as a radical protestor against social injustice, and a promoter of compassion and respect through peaceful and nonviolent action.
He is a model of his own recommendation to let the light of our mature and wholesome lifestyle shine so that others might follow and thereby help make the community of God a tangible reality.
Be willing to be a beginner every single morning. Meister Eckhart (13th century Dominican mystic)
Humility comes only with maturity. Louis Finkelstein (20th century Jewish Talmud scholar)
Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. Jim Carrey
When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty. Norm Crosby
My definition of an intellectual is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. Billy Connolly
Apparently, one in five people in the world are Chinese. And there are five people in my family, so it must be one of them. It’s either my mum or my dad. Or my older brother, Colin. Or my younger brother, Ho-Chan-Chu. But I think it’s Colin. Tim Vine