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Proper 24, Year A, Tr 2 (Trinity 18), 19.10.2014
Isa 45.1-7: Cyrus as named (and anointed) by God
Ps 96.1-9, (10-13): re the nations
1 Thess 1.1-10: rescue us from the wrath that is coming
Matt 22.15-22: eikon (1133)

God, our judge and saviour, teach us to be open to your truth and to trust in your love,
that we may live each day with confidence in the salvation which is given
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
 

We as the image of God in Christ are the sign of his reign of love.

          This morning let us look at each of our readings.  Our first reading is from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  The Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are read as scrolls in synagogue.  It is striking that these three scrolls are all of a similar length.  This is believed to have happened because additional materials of a similar nature were gradually added to the scrolls until the whole length of a scroll was filled up.  In the case of the scroll of Isaiah, the prophetic preaching of Isaiah, a prophet of the 8th century BC, lies behind chapters 1-39.  Chapters 40-55 are believed to be from a prophet at the end of the exile in Babylon .  Scholars refer to him as Deutero-Isaiah, or 2nd Isaiah, with chapters 56 to the end being of a different nature.

          Our reading from Isaiah talks about Cyrus.  For thirty years, from 559 to 530 BC, the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, built up a huge empire starting from Medea.  Babylonia fell to Cyrus in 539, after which the exiled Jews were allowed by Cyrus to return to Judah . He also respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered.        In our passage Cyrus is spoken of as being anointed and named by God as God’s unwitting agent, doing God’s will whether he knows it or not.                    In our own day, like Deutero-Isaiah, you and I might well look outside our own comfortable boundaries to see where we can acknowledge God’s will being done today, with or without any reference to God.

          Our Isaiah passage is picked up in the letter to the Philippians.  This lovely letter of encouragement was written in Paul’s name very shortly, I believe, after Paul was put to death in Rome .  It appears that the author writes his letter in parallel with chapters 35 to 66 of Isaiah, and he very clearly picks up our reading from Isaiah 45 and applies the anointing and naming to Jesus, who is given the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.  

          Now for today’s second reading which is the opening of 1 Thessalonians.   There are 13 letters in the NT bearing Paul’s name, but in my judgement only five of them are by Paul himself and this is not one of them.

          The author speaks of Jesus as rescuing us from the wrath that is coming.  Paul himself uses the word ‘wrath’ only in Romans, and then it is simply the inevitable consequence of turning from God’s love.  In the OT God’s wrath is used to bring Israel to repentance, but in Romans (2.4) Paul says that it is the krestotes, the ‘kindness’ of God that will lead to repentance, and Paul, unlike some of those who write in his name, never speaks of the ‘wrath of God’. 

          For my part, I prefer to follow Paul’s emphasis in Romans on the God’s unbreakable love in Christ Jesus rather than any sense of being rescued from an impending wrath.  

          And now to our gospel.  This is a story that is in Mark and Luke as well as Matthew.  In Mark’s gospel it is the chief priests, the scribes and the elders who send Pharisees and Herodians to trap Jesus in what he says, but here in Matthew it is different. 

          For Matthew it is the Pharisees themselves and their scribes who are the real “baddies”, for they are preventing all those good Jews from the synagogue across the street, so to speak, from acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah and becoming his disciples.  So in Matthew it is the Pharisees themselves who send some of their disciples along with the Herodians to set the trap.  The Pharisees represent a very pious and intense lay reform movement in first century Judaism, while, on the other hand, the Herodians were apparently supporters of the rule and policies of Herod Antipas, who ruled under the aegis of the Roman Empire .

          Now, to start with, they put Jesus on a pedestal: “Teacher, you are true and teach the way of God and care for no man.”

          And then, they throw in the question that they believe will pull him down.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”

          If Jesus says it is lawful, then he will lose the support of all the Jews who bitterly resent the domination of their land by the Roman Empire .

          If, on the other hand, he says it is not lawful, the Herodians can report him to the Roman authorities who will arrest him.

          Jesus is fully aware of this, and he puts them off their stride with the demand that they show him the money used to pay the tax.  They themselves bring him a denarius, a small silver coin.  That is, they are not averse to handling it and using it in transactions to buy and sell goods.  Now Jesus counters their question with his own question: “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  Actually the Greek used is not kephale, “head”, but eikon, “image”.     The disciples of the Pharisees have no option but to reply, “The Emperor’s”.

          And now Jesus gives his answer to their initial question: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.

          They are not puzzled; they don’t say, “Yes, but...”  They don’t try to ask him another question.  Instead they are left speechless.  They are simply amazed, so they leave him, and they go away.

          Why?  The answer quite simply lies in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1, verses 26 to 28: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness... So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”

          If the coin belongs to Caesar’s realm, then all humankind belongs to God’s realm.  If the coin is a symbol of the gamut of the Roman Empire , then we, as the mobile, peripatetic image of God, are the symbol of God’s ownership and sovereignty of everything that we encounter, no matter where it may be throughout the universe.  If the image on our coins indicate that they belong to the realm of Elizabeth II, then we, as the image of God, and everything that we shine on belong to God. 

          As St Paul expresses it, you and I are to be conformed to the image of Christ, who is the supreme image of God, and it is our task in all things to give expression to God’s Kingdom, to his gracious reign of love that he has made known in and through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

This is the calling that is set forth in today’s gospel.