Reading Ramblings – October 18, 2020

Date: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 18, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Context: The dividing line between worldly affairs and divine providence is fuzzy at best, non-existent most likely, and a source of endless debate and confusion. Suffice it to say we fail to adequately marvel at the glory and power and wisdom of God who can use even those ignorant or directly opposed to him for his own purposes. The accusations of Christians on either side of the political spectrum who denounce Christians on the other side as patently against God’s will have a disturbingly scant acquaintance with God’s Word and how God works in ways not only mysterious to us but through means that ought to be completely unacceptable to him! We can be sure that God’s will is going to be done, and we can be sure of his Word that guides our actions. But the interplay of these things and innumerable other variables should remind us in humility to be hesitant in asserting we know what God is doing and how He is doing it in any single given situation. Rather, we should constantly give thanks and praise and look forward in hope to the promised deliverance and will of God in our Lord’s return.

Isaiah 45:1-7 – Cyrus here mentioned is Cyrus the Great who as prophesied by Isaiah destroys the Babylonian Empire and allows the Hebrews to return to Jerusalem. He is widely regarded historically as a benevolent ruler, bestowed with the title The Father by his people and credited not simply for overthrowing other rulers and empires but also in establishing a stable one in his wake. But it is safe to say that Isaiah’s description of him here is accurate. He does not know the God of the Bible. Not in anything other than perhaps a passing or even academic way. He certainly does not acknowledge the God of the Hebrews as his god, as the source of his life or his successes. And he certainly could not know that among his many achievements, one of them – perhaps the smallest of them at the time – was the fulfillment of prophesy regarding the people of God. God is able to take even a pagan, foreign ruler and work his will through him. No doubt to anyone other than the Hebrews this would have looked circumstantial at best, yet Isaiah’s words over 100 years earlier testify to the power and glory of our God who is unparalleled.

Psalm 96 – Certainly a God who is able to work out a complicated plan that encompasses all of created time and space is worthy of praise! Certainly He should be the subject of and recipient of new songs constantly detailing his care and love for his creation, and his remarkable way of bringing things to pass we couldn’t conceive of otherwise, let alone accomplish for ourselves. There is, in fact, nothing more we can do than receive him and acknowledge him in joy and gratitude for who He is as well as what He does. Certainly any alternative gods are nothing but idol fancies compared to this God who works his will through even the most unknowing and even ungrateful tools!

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – We move on to another letter of Paul’s as the lectio continua aspect of the liturgical season of Ordinary Time continues. Some scholars think 1 & 2 Thessalonians to be Paul’s earliest letters (although others favor Galatians for this distinction). Dating of the letter is more or less reliably tied to somewhere in the vicinity of 51AD, with 2 Thessalonians following within a matter of weeks or 1-2 months at the most. Paul has only recently left Thessalonica, where he had to leave due to disruptions and attacks by his Jewish opponents (Acts 17). Timothy & Silas remained a while longer but rejoined Paul in Corinth, which is likely where Paul is writing from, having received reports that, despite the mistreatment of Jewish opposition, the Christians in Thessalonica remain firm in their faith. These ten verses are the introduction and thanksgiving sections of Paul’s letter, identifying the authors and the intended recipients and outlining Paul’s exuberance to hear the Thessalonians remain strong in their faith. Not only personally and inwardly but in ways that are observable and reportable, so that the young Christian congregation in Thessalonica is already being talked about elsewhere (1:7-8), an undoubted aid to Paul as he continues his missionary work.

Matthew 22:15-22 – Opposition to Jesus continues. Jesus’ popularity make it continually difficult to isolate him and arrest him without a crowd that might intervene or cause a commotion sufficient to summon swift – and brutal – Roman reprisals. We can better appreciate Judas’ instrumentality in notifying the Jewish leaders when and where to capture Jesus alone! But for now, they continue to try and trap Jesus in his words, pushing him to answer complicated questions that will either cause the crowds to abandon him (if He supports Roman taxation) or allow the Romans to arrest him for sedition (if He counsels against paying taxes). And as before, Jesus continues to elude these theological traps.

The issue of taxation has always been a sensitive one, particularly to a people hard-pressed to pay burdensom taxes to a foreign power or a disinterested domestic one. The leaders flatter Jesus, but more likely are playing to the crowds around him. Their flattery is likely intended less to goad Jesus to one particular response, but a way of gathering the crowd around him to give witness to either his complicity with Roman rule or his blasphemy of God. Once again, they are disappointed!

But Jesus isn’t really answering their question, because their question really isn’t real. They aren’t interested in Jesus’ economic policies. They aren’t seeking God’s will in Jesus’ answer, they believe it is God’s will they entrap Jesus in his words to demonstrate his falseness as a prophet – let alone as possibly the messiah! – and save God’s people from apostasy or persecution. Their question is intended to trap Jesus, and Jesus won’t be trapped. He gives an answer that really isn’t an answer to a question that really isn’t a question. For us to take his answer as some sort of authoritative statement on taxation is most likely incorrect.

After all, Jesus isn’t striking a balance here. Is there a balance in the kingdom of heaven? Does anything else in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew lead us to an understanding of our life of faith as one of compromise between the powers of this world and the kingdom of heaven? Is there any power of this world outside the kingdom of heaven? Jesus’ answer here leaves his adversaries – and you and I – to sort out the answer, and we as followers of Christ have the added benefit of the rest of Scripture (including the more explicit Romans 13) to guide us in our answers.

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