OCTOBER 16, 2011, 18TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, Year A
ISAIAH 45:1-7; MATTHEW 22:15-22
THE REV. DOUG HALE
So… How many of you were stunned by the reading from Isaiah?
Well, if you were a Jew during the exile in Babylon, you probably would have been stunned. Isaiah was presenting a radical proposal. He presents a foreign king, Cyrus, with the title used only for Jewish kings up to that time: Messiah, God’s anointed, God’s chosen one. Then they are told that Cyrus will be God’s instrument for good for the people of Israel.
This would be like Jerry Falwell saying that God has chosen and empowered President Obama as an instrument for the good of Republicans, or for Jesse Jackson to proclaim that President Bush did the work of God for the Democrats.
Isaiah’s message was a radically different view of God from most of his contemporaries. In his day, the common perspective was that each nation state or group of people had their own god. Marduk was the god of the Babylonians. Yahweh was the god of the Israelites.
But at the end of our passage, God declares, “I am Yahweh, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I Yahweh do all these things.”
It is this God of all creation that is not limited to using Israelite kings to do the good that needs to be done for the people of Israel.
Now, if we skip forward to Jesus’ day, we see that Isaiah’s message has not gotten through yet. The Pharisees seek to entrap Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The question is presented by representatives of the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were probably sympathetic to the Zealots who wanted to throw off the Roman occupation of their country. The Herodians were comfortable with the arrangement of local Jewish leaders under the wider Roman rule.
If Jesus said “Yes, pay the tax,” the Herodians would have given him a thumbs-up and the Pharisees would have given him a thumbs-down. If he had said, “No, don’t pay the tax,” the responses would have been the reverse. He could not please both.
But Jesus asks to see the specific coin used for the payment of the tax to the Roman emperor. “Whose head and whose title is this?” he asked. The answer was obvious. The image of Tiberius was on the coin along with the inscription, “of Tiberius Caesar.” The coin belongs to Caesar, so give it back to him. The Herodians were ready with the thumbs-up.
But then Jesus said, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” Well, doesn’t everything belong to God? Suddenly, no one knew what to do with their hands. The question was who do we owe the money to, Caesar or God? Jesus’ answer was “Yes.”
The question to Jesus reflected the same issue that Isaiah had addressed centuries before. Isaiah’s prophecy recognized that their were no easy answers to this issue.
Cyrus might be an instrument of God, but he doesn’t know it. In fact, on an inscription we still have today, he credited his successes to Marduk. But, God says to Cyrus that he has been given these successes “so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” Cyrus is a work in progress for God, but a work nonetheless.
Isaiah helps us see that what Jesus was getting at is that whether or not Tiberius knows it, he belongs to the one God and so does his coin.
People may not perceive Tiberius or Cyrus as instruments of God, but that does not mean that God is not at work through them.
In the early centuries of the Church, Church leaders encouraged people to pray for the leaders of the Roman Empire. They recognized with Isaiah that the Emperor could be used by God, so they prayed that he indeed would be used by God and that one day he would come to know God. It was not until the fourth century that an Emperor, Constantine, became a follower of Christ.
We may pat ourselves on the back, “Oh, we understand that there is only one God,” but it is not easy to apply the perspective to the specifics of our lives.
As the presidential political season heats up, we may have a hard time seeing certain politicians as being the instruments of God’s good work in our lives. Some of the rhetoric I hear makes it sound like people think their least favorite President was an instrument of the devil, not of God.
There was a saying in Jesus’ day, “Can anything good come from Galilee?” Today there seems to be plenty of rhetoric that is based upon the question, “Can anything good come from the other political party?”
But God is in the habit of using unlikely people: Galileans, Gentiles, Roman Centurions. They all belong to God. Right now God may be using some unlikely person in our minds whether or not they know it or we recognize it?
I have been a part of precious little conversation across opinions about the issues of our day there seems to be very little civil conversation that recognizes that the other may actually have something worth listening to
Yet, I believe that is what God is saying to us today:
“Those other people are my instruments for good.
“Give them your respect; Listen to them.
“They may have something to say that is truly worth listening to and you will miss it if you don’t let down your guard.”
Look for the work of God for your benefit in those unlikely people. Take time to listen. Ask real questions, not rhetorical questions. Most of all, pray for them, that God will truly use them for good.
Fr. Doug Hale