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20th Sunday after Trinity

16 October 2023

22 October, Proper 24: Isaiah 45.1-7; Psalm 96.1-9 (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

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IF WE read this Gospel in isolation, we risk missing a fuller message; for, in the sacrament of the word, the Holy Spirit liberates readings to speak to each other. It shapes messages in the spaces between them, as well as within each one taken on its own. Isaiah 45 is paired with the story from Matthew 22: in both, God is expected to support only “his” people, and yet entrusts his will to people who have never heard of him, still less worshipped him.

Cyrus (in Isaiah) and Caesar (in Matthew) have much in common, although they come from different lands, and from different eras. Cyrus (“the Great”) founded an empire; much later, so did Caesar. They were territory-grabbers, asserting control, imprinting their personalities on the civilisations which they led.

The prophet says that Cyrus, a foreigner, is God’s chosen one: his “Christ” (“anointed one”) to save God’s people by restoring them after their exile. Prophetic messages often take us by surprise, perhaps because we have no equivalent tradition. But such prophetic voices as we have often suffer as their biblical forebears did. Today’s mainstream and social media alike can have a prophet crucified on the Calvary of popular opinion in less time than it took Pontius Pilate to glance through the execution lists on that first Good Friday morning.

But clergy are ordained, and some are also anointed; so, surely, they should have prophetic confidence to proclaim the Lord’s message for all the people? Many of them avoid challenging the political status quo, though. They concentrate their energies on the priestly sphere. Although the Bible brings the starkest, bravest prophets to the fore, we should not forget that there were plenty of prophets upholding popular views that supported the religious Establishment (Jeremiah 23, 28; Ezekiel 22.28; Matthew 7.15).

Verse 7 of the Isaiah passage almost drove all other thoughts and ideas from my mind. The oldest translations do its baldness justice: “I make peace and form evils” (Septuagint Greek); “I make peace and create evil” (Vulgate Latin, AV). In modern times, the RSV replaces the high-calorie version with a low-sugar solution (sweetened by a neat alliteration): “I make weal and create woe.” Other versions plump for “well-being and disaster”, “prosperity and doom”, or “prosperity and disaster”.

Only in the older versions is it clear what is really being said in the Hebrew: “I make shalom, I create evil/calamity.” The only reason that I can see that the RSV (followed by the NRSV) goes for “weal and woe” (a ridiculous archaism in a modern translation) is to avoid the conundrum of God’s telling us that he creates, on the one hand, peace (no problem with that), but, on the other, calamity, even evil (awkward, to say the least).

I used to admire the way in which Jesus sidesteps the trap laid for him by the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel. But, now, helped by Isaiah 45, I have come to see that he does not sidestep the trap at all: he steps over it. The trap fails to ensnare him because Jesus is saying what the Pharisees themselves also think.

They hope that he will betray revolutionary opinions and be condemned for them. They are themselves tolerant of Roman imperial control. They accept giving to Caesar what is due to him: recognition (in the form of obedience) and tribute (in the form of taxes). In exchange for this, they get protection, and the kudos of being part of the top team in the Premier League of nations.

In a pre-modern culture with rudimentary public order, many people might have seen Roman rule as a better path to a secure society than protection rackets and local mafias. The famous question (which was intended as rhetorical) “What have the Romans ever done for us?” eventually produced this answer: “Sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh-water system, public health — and peace.”

Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are right. The only difference between them and him is their malicious intentions; for they are enticing him into collapsing the categories of religion and politics into one another, whereas he arranges them in a constructive parallel.

From the fourth century, Matthew 22.21 began to be interpreted as a proof text for the separation of religious and political powers. Jesus taught us to give respect to both. No wonder the Pharisees went away amazed; for the radical firebrand had just agreed with them.

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