19th Sunday after Trinity

19 October 2017

Isaiah 45.1-7; Psalm 96.1-9 [10-13]; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

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O God, forasmuch as without you we are not able to please you; mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

EMBITTERED by being publicly hu­­­­­mi­liated in their conversations with Jesus, the Pharisees began ac­­tively plotting against him. The idea behind setting their followers up to ask whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor ought to have been foolproof. It invoked the teach­ing in the preceding parables that seemed to suggest disregarding established hierarchies (Matthew 22.16-17), and it was direct enough to produce a “yes” or “no” answer.

This was a situation, they thought, in which Jesus could not win. If he recommended paying the imperial tax, then he would be sup­­porting a structure which did not seem to have a place in his teaching. If he counselled against payment, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to report him for inciting re­­bellion. Once again, they had under­­estimated him.

When Jesus requested sight of the coin used for the tax, he was sig­­nalling that he saw the trap: a choice between the blasphemy of emperor worship or the punishable crime of civil dis­obedi­ence. His answer is decep­tively simple, but goes much deeper than his en­­emies had ex­­pected.

God and the Emperor, he was showing them, were not in com­­­petition. They should have known this from their own tra­di­tion: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world and all that is in it is mine. . . Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High” (Psalm 50.12-14). What God wan­­ted was not material tributes reinforcing divine identity, but the grateful and freely willed response of his people in love and worship (Matthew 22.21).

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Charles Wesley understood that the only place in which God desires to imprint an image is the human heart, and returned to it in several hymns, as in “Come and let us sweetly join” (Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1740):

 

Love, Thine image, love impart!
Stamp it on our face and heart!
Only love to us be given!
Lord, we ask no other heaven.

 

One of the rewards of the related lectionary, which consciously relates the Old Testament and Gospel read­ings, lies in wrestling with the reasons for choosing particular pas­­sages. Isaiah’s introduction of the Persian Emperor Cyrus sits neatly beside the head of Tiberius Caesar on Matthew’s coin.

But where Jesus in the Gospel narrative is called on to decide an ethi­cal question about obligations in society and to God, the prophet takes on the larger question of the interpretation of God’s action in history. From a Persian point of view, the conquest of Babylon might have seemed more significant than allowing a party of exiles to return to Judah and rebuild their temple.

Cyrus had simply done a just thing in the course of imposing a new regime. For the nation to which those exiles belonged, return and rebuilding signified a renewed rela­­tion­ship with God.

Isaiah plays with a paradox: God has chosen Cyrus to liberate his people, yet Cyrus is unaware of the part he is to play (Isaiah 45.4). He will be renowned for different re­­asons in the histories of a great em­pire and a comparatively insig­nific­­ant nation. But, in the end, J. J. M. Roberts writes, “God is in control of all the twists and turns of history” (Harper Collins Study Bible, rev. edn., Harper­Collins, 2006).

It is in that light that the prophet’s port­­rayal of God as the maker of both “weal” and “woe”, a cause of much anxiety in online discussions of this passage, should be read (Isaiah 45.7).

Paul, writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, is offering another form of presence. Distressed by be­­ing separated physically — though “not in heart” — from these new be­­lievers, he had sent Timothy to “en­­­cour­age” them (1 Thes­salonians 2.17, 3.2). Philip Esler describes its func­­tion as an ex­­­tension of pre­­sence.

In this sense, it has much in com­mon with the understanding of the letter-form in the Greek world, sus­taining the bond of friendship across a distance. Unable to be with the Thessalonians in person, he can offer a representation of himself, perhaps made even more com­pel­ling if the letter was read aloud in the assembly (The Oxford Bible Com­mentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford University Press, 2001).

He can also represent them to themselves as though he were there to observe their life together. They have become “imitators of [Paul and his companions in mission] and of the Lord”, to the extent that their faith has become widely reported (1 Thessalonians 1.6-8). In this way, Paul’s presence as an apostle spreads geographic­­ally. In another way, it extends through time in the imagi­nations of its later readers.

Esler reminds us that the letter is a “precious document”, the earliest Christian text available to us, still inviting its audiences to be models of a resilient and joyful faith.

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