Lectionary Commentaries for October 19, 2008
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22

Jeannine K. Brown

You can currently purchase online both a book, the title of which is Jesus is Not a Republican, and a T-shirt claiming that “Jesus Votes Republican.”

And, of course, you can find the converse claims and denials about Jesus being a Democrat. Judging from the gospel text for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, the Jesus portrayed in Matthew was not so easily pinned down on political issues in his day.

In Matthew 21-22, representatives from a number of Jewish leadership groups come to Jesus with questions: questions about his authority (21:23-27); questions about the resurrection (22:23-33); and questions about the Law (22:34-40). The question in Matthew 22:17 is brought by disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians, an unlikely pairing of partisans, if the Herodians represent the interests of Herod and other clients of Rome within his circle. Yet representatives of both groups come in order to “trap” Jesus by providing him with a lose/lose situation. But first they smooth the way by speaking of Jesus’ integrity, commitment to truth and equity, and lack of concern for the opinions of others (22:16).

Their question is short and to the point: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The tax in view is the census tax, a per person tax of a denarius (22:19). The conundrum for Jesus is this: If he answers yes, then he could be perceived as in collusion with Rome, justifying Roman occupation and oppression of the Jews. This would not be a popular answer among the Jewish people. On the other hand, if Jesus answers no, he could be suspected of revolutionary sentiment against Rome.

Jesus answers and shows that he is aware of their trickery. He calls them “hypocrites,” because they show something on the outside (flattery) that is quite opposite of what is true internally (evil intent; see Matthew 6:1-17 and 23:13-32 for Jesus’ indictment of hypocrisy). Jesus calls for a coin–a denarius− presumably the cost of the tax, and he asks them to identify whose image is on the coin. When they identify the emperor’s face and title (Kai/sarov), Jesus delivers an amazing and rather ambiguous one-liner: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21).

The key interpretive issue of this passage rests in the meaning of this statement. The first clause on its own indicates that the tax should be paid, since the emperor’s image and inscription on the coin would cause it to fall under “things that are the emperor’s.” On the other hand, the final clause places a question mark on what belongs to whom! Given Jesus’ repeated use of the Old Testament highlighted throughout Matthew and his preaching of the arrival of God’s kingdom, it is difficult to imagine that Jesus would see much of anything falling outside of “the things that are God’s” (see Psalm 24:1– “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”).

The beauty of Jesus’ answer is that he both concedes payment of the census tax while subverting the reach of the emperor. If read one way, Jesus’ answer is simply an affirmation of Christian submission to governing authorities. Yet if read from another angle, Jesus affirms the all encompassing reach of God’s ownership in a way that relativizes imperial claims of right to rule. The denarius which Jesus called his questioners to produce read “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest) on the other. Into the reverberation of such all encompassing and even idolatrous claims, Jesus here reasserts God’s ownership and rule.

How is it that we might hear the impact of this story in our own contexts? What are the all-encompassing claims of ownership and right that Jesus would relativize for his people today? At the core, the issues raised by this biblical passage are ones of allegiance. If God owns all, then we belong to God alone. Yet we live a life in which competing powers and influences vie to own us, to sway us, to capture our hearts. The tendency, for example, for what we own to exert ownership on us (“you cannot serve both money and God”) means we need to guard against consumerism and materialism as competing allegiances to our loyalty to God. The questions raised by this text and our preaching of it must address the call of Jesus to live in whole hearted allegiance to God, while navigating in life contexts that often pull at that allegiance. Such navigation is not easy, and we would do well to seek God’s wisdom and discernment as we desire to follow Jesus in a world full of siren songs. Yet Jesus is the source of God’s wisdom–his wisdom shows through in his answer to this test by the Pharisees and Herodians.

In the end, these questioners of Jesus go away amazed (22:22). Amazement is not such a bad response to seek to reproduce in those to whom we are preaching. If they, and we, would leave an encounter with this biblical text amazed at the Jesus portrayed there–a Jesus not easily categorized, a Jesus wise in his answers to testing, a Jesus whose first allegiance is to the all-encompassing scope of God’s reign–then we will have done our job. 

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 45:1-7

James K. Mead

Messiah Cyrus and the sovereign will of God:

The name Cyrus won’t ring a bell for many worshipers, unless perhaps it’s Miley Cyrus of “Hannah Montana” fame. Preachers are likely to strike a chord, however, if they announce that this Cyrus is the Lord’s Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed one” = “Christ” in Greek), which is precisely what Isaiah 45:1 calls the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon in 539 BCE.  Cyrus’s messianic status should give us pause, if not surprise and offense. Two thousand years of Christian history have solidified the connection of the name Jesus with title Christ, and rightly so, for that is what Jesus is: God’s anointed one.

It is also likely that the first recipients of the royal oracle in Isaiah 45:1-7 — exiled Jews living in Babylon — would have been stunned to hear the prophet say such a thing. While the term messiah (māšîaḥ) is not abundant in the Old Testament, occurring about thirty five times, the remnant of Judah would have associated “messiah” almost exclusively with their own king from the house of David.1  How could that office be assumed by a foreign conqueror? So what are we to do with Cyrus, the only non-Israelite leader to be called a messiah?

The role of Cyrus in God’s plan for Israel opens a door to theological and pastoral insights in this Sunday’s Old Testament lection. It is theological, first and foremost, because the biblical passages in which Cyrus appears are not really about him but about Yahweh and his special plans for Israel’s redemption.  The larger literary unit of which our passage is a part (Isa 44:24-45:13) is a virtual litany of God’s attributes and actions. As evidence of this preoccupation with God, one scholar points to “the repeated first person pronoun in Yahweh’s speech (nine times) and the verbs in the first person,” which total over thirty instances.2  In contrast, Cyrus is mentioned by name only twice in the Hebrew (44:28; 45:1) and all of his actions are prompted by God’s prior influence in his life. Cyrus succeeds only at the behest of the One whom he does not know.

To anyone outside the small exilic community, however, Cyrus would have been the greatest figure in the world. He was the true power on the planet, and he apparently thought so himself, if his famous edict is any indication. Not long after conquering Babylon, Cyrus allowed all exiled peoples to return to their homelands.  The version of this edict on the famous Cyrus cylinder states, “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon.”3  But in spite of his relative importance in the human community of the sixth century BCE, he was only an instrument in God’s hand. He was anointed, yes, but only for the specific task of releasing the captive peoples. The same principle adheres today: rulers and revolutionaries, celebrities and commoners alike come and go on the stage of history while the director of the drama holds history in his hands.

Another theological insight pertains to the concept of the knowledge of God. Cyrus’s own religious commitments are unknown to us. The language of his edict — whether giving credit to Yahweh (Ezra 1:2-4) or to the Babylonian deity Marduk (the cylinder) — may indeed be that of a sincere, well-intentioned ruler, but it is political propaganda nonetheless. Whatever the implications of the prophet’s hope for Cyrus — “so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by name” (v. 3) — the reality is explicitly stated twice in verses 4-5: “you do not know me.” The image of the mighty foreign king, who can release God’s people but does not seem to know the Lord, should remind us a similar purpose for knowledge of God with the Pharaoh of Egypt (Exod. 7:5, 17). 

Implicit in this discussion of knowing God is, of course, whether the people of Israel themselves truly know the God who called and formed them. So much of Isaiah 40-55 is preoccupied with persuading the exiles to trust God.  A few chapters earlier the issue of their knowledge of God was put to them: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28). The rhetorical nature of those questions called on the deep, national remembrance of their covenant with the creator God.  Thus, as the prophet emphasizes Cyrus’s usefulness in spite of his lack of knowledge of Yahweh, the exiles must recognize that they have none of the Persian monarch’s excuses. Their knowledge of God must usher forth into a trust in God for the new thing he is doing.

Their faltering faith is met not with judgment but with pastoral encouragement to believe that God’s sovereignty is yet capable of using all things for his people’s benefit. Yahweh alone is the one who can “form light and create darkness . . . make weal and create woe” (v. 7).4  This sweeping affirmation remains challenging even when we focus on its special purpose in this context. It might seem easier to attribute “darkness” and “woe” to forces and beings other than God; and on the finite, human plane one finds plenty of causes of disaster. But the prophet challenges God’s people to know that Yahweh speaks the final word in and for human history.

1A few passages call the priest an “anointed one” (Lev. 4:3, 5, 16; 6:15).
2John Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 157.
3See James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 316.
4The NRSV’s “woe” is a good translation of the Hebrew ra’ here. While ra’ has a range of meanings, including “evil,” the King James Version’s use of the latter word is inappropriate in the context. In v. 7 ra’ is juxtaposed with “weal” (šālôm) — not “good” — making “woe” (or something like it) the appropriate contrast.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23

Karla Suomala

In Exodus 32:1-14, Moses appeared calm and collected as he successfully negotiated with God on top of Mount Sinai to save the Israelites from God’s anger about the golden calf.

His manner changed, however, as soon as he descended, and actually saw firsthand what the people were doing. Moses became so angry, in fact, that he “threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.” (Exodus 32:19-20)

Moses didn’t let up, even after the calf was destroyed. He went to the gates of the Israelite camp to enlist anyone willing to fight on God’s side, saying: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” (32:27)

What happened to the clear-thinking, unruffled Moses who was concerned about saving the lives of the Israelites? Although Moses indicated that this command came from God, the biblical text never reports that God spoke these words to Moses. One has to wonder whether or not God really wanted this type of response. At any rate, three thousand people are killed.

After the blood-letting, Moses gathered up the people to make his first public announcement about the whole calf incident: “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” (32:30) At this point, Moses once again put his life on the line for the people, telling God to forgive the sin of the Israelites, “but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” (32:32) God agreed to Moses’ terms, more-or-less, but informed him that “whoever has sinned against [God]” will be blotted out of his book at some future point (32:33). God then charges Moses with leading the people and sends a plague for good measure.

Exodus 33: Will God accompany the Israelites?

Exodus 33:1-3 picks up on God’s directive to Moses to lead the Israelites, but God makes very clear what his own role will be: “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites… Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

In Exodus 33:12-13, Moses seems not to have heard these words or has perhaps decided to ignore them. Instead Moses wants even more from God than the knowledge of who will accompany them on their journey; he wants God to show him God’s ways so that he might both know God and find favor before God. He also wants God to clearly show God’s alignment with the nation of Israel.

God responds to this request by saying, “My presence [literally, ‘my face’] will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (33:14) Apparently, this answer doesn’t allay Moses’ concerns, so he tries again in vss. 15-16, asking God, “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people…?” Moses’ persistence pays off. God tells him, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” (33:17)

What more could Moses want?

Hasn’t Moses gone far enough, overstepping the boundaries between humankind and God? So far in his conversations with God, Moses has persuaded God to change God’s mind about total destruction of the Israelites, insisted on forgiveness for them, secured God’s presence with them in their travels, and even been assured of greater knowledge of God along with a clear sign of God’s favor.

In Exodus 33:18, however, Moses goes for broke: “Show me your glory, I pray.” Commentators since ancient times have puzzled over what exactly is signified by “glory” in this plea. They generally agree, though, that it points to a need on the part of Moses for greater intimacy in his relationship with God. Basically, Moses tells God, “I need more than a business relationship with you. You know me, by face, by name, in every possible way, but I don’t know you and I can’t see you. I want reciprocity.”

So, what more could Moses want? He wants a deep, personal, intimate connection to God. What is remarkable here is Moses’ desire to know more of God, and his doggedness in realizing this goal. Taking care of the business of leading the Israelites isn’t enough for Moses–he wants relationship and connection with God, along with knowledge and experience of the Divine.

The ancient rabbis, in reflecting on this passage, wondered why God would choose to reveal God’s being in one setting (at the burning bush), yet place limitations on the divine revelation in this context. They concluded that Moses, while able to demand a lot of God, could not ultimately control God’s revelation.

What does God show Moses?

God tells Moses what he will reveal in vss. 19 and 23: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy… you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

This answer suggests that while God values Moses’ request, there are limits to what God will reveal to Moses. “Moses,” he says, “You would never survive seeing all that you ask for; instead I’ll show you the kind of God that I am–a God that is both gracious and merciful.”

Through Moses’ sheer tenacity, he basically gets what he’s after–assurance of God’s commitment to both Moses and the nation of Israel, and a deeper knowledge of God really is. What if he hadn’t been so persistent?

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Richard Ascough

The opening of any letter sets the tone for the remainder of the letter.

When we write a letter of complaint, we generally do not begin with warm, fuzzy greetings. Likewise, a letter making a formal request will not generally begin with informal salutations. Such practices were also the case in antiquity, where the form and tone of the opening of a letter sets the stage for what follows, while reflecting the current relationship between the writer and the recipient.

Shortly after leaving Thessalonica to go south, Paul became worried about the community he left behind. Having dispatched Timothy and hearing his subsequent report, Paul penned what has been determined to be the earliest letter in the New Testament — 1 Thessalonians. Timothy reported that many people at Thessalonica still had great affection for Paul, so Paul writes them to provide assurance, comfort, gentle admonition and conciliation, encouragement, and pastoral care. Overall, he writes to encourage the Jesus-believers to persevere in their Christian life — they are doing alright (unlike the Corinthians or the Galatians) but he wants them to “do so more and more” (4:1, 10).

Paul uses the standard ancient letter format of initial greetings (1:1) followed by a thanksgiving or blessing (1:2-10). As with many of his subsequent letters, Paul plays with the formulations used in Greco-Roman letters by changing the usual use of “greeting” (chairein) to “grace” (charis) and adding the Jewish greeting “peace” (shalom).

The thanksgiving section serves as an opportunity for Paul to remind the Thessalonians about their relationship, primarily as it was developed through his bringing the gospel to them and their reception of it. This is no simple narration of the events, however, as Paul constructs his recap in such a way as to highlight the enduring results of the Gospel in their lives.

Result of the Gospel (vv. 2-3)
As a result of the coming of the gospel to Thessalonica, the Jesus-believers there can now be noted for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). This is Paul’s first of two uses of the triad of faith, hope, and love in this letter (see also 5:8), a triad that also shows up as the climax of his poem to love in 1 Corinthians 13. Here Paul prefaces each of the characteristics with references to the effort required to exercise them: work, labor, and steadfastness. Not only does this emphasize that such qualities do not arise naturally, it anticipates Paul’s return to the theme of manual labor later in the letter (2:9, 4:11), a theme that suggests that the Thessalonians themselves are such workers. Likewise the issue of their living out their faith in community (1:3) is raised but not elaborated upon until later in the letter (4:1-12).

Presentation of the Gospel (vv. 4-8)
Having begun with the results of the Gospel, Paul now returns to its beginning among the Thessalonians, recalling for them how he and his companions first preached the message with conviction in word, in power, and in the Holy Spirit. Here Paul anticipates possibly having to defend himself against accusations that he was a false preacher (2:1-12).

The Thessalonians, it seems, quickly accepted the message despite some opposition. It is striking that the Thessalonians are the only Jesus-group whom Paul notes are already imitating him (1:6) rather than are urged to imitate him. This underlines his close relationship with them. As a consequence of this acceptance, the Thessalonians themselves have become an example to other Jesus-believers, not only locally, but also in other places in the circum-Mediterranean.

Content of the Gospel (vv. 9-10)
Paul draws the thanksgiving to a close by giving some indication of the content of the gospel that he brought to Thessalonica. Paul makes it clear that the majority of the Thessalonians were not Jewish by noting that they “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1:9). As a Jew himself, Paul is not likely to refer to Jewish worship as idolatry, since the God of the Jews is the God of Jesus. His initial gospel message, then, must have included some persuasion that the gods typically worshiped by the Thessalonians, gods such as Dionysos or the Dioscuroi-Cabiroi, were not as powerful as the God of Jesus. This was important in more than an abstract sense. Paul’s brief reference to rescue “from the coming wrath” (1:10) suggests that the Thessalonians are aware of Paul’s eschatological scenario in which the Jewish “Day of the Lord” will bring a final reckoning upon the earth. Yet this only hints at the return of Jesus, a topic not elaborated upon until later in the letter (4:13-5:11).

From these opening words of Paul’s earliest letter we learn an important lesson about the nature of the Gospel message, which is as applicable today as it was in the first century. The content of the Gospel is grounded in faith and action–faith insofar as one must accept the message of the return of Jesus, and action insofar as one must turn away from the practices of idolatry. The presentation of the Gospel is found in words and action. Paul notes that he and his colleagues did not simply talk about the Gospel, they lived it. They lived it to the degree that when the new believers wanted to know how to live, they imitated the messengers. In like manner, the Thessalonians themselves became exemplars of action for others. Finally, the Gospel message results in belief and action. The belief is expressed in the triad of faith, hope, and love, but each of these demands exertion in order to be realized.