18 October 2014

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 26 October 2014

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17


Leviticus 19:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 1

I Thessalonians 2:1-8
St. Matthew 22:34-46

Background: Leviticus

There has been resurgence around the book of Leviticus largely due to its provisions in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) and how that plays out around the role of women and gay and lesbian people in contemporary Western culture.  The name of the book refers to the Levites descended from the tribe of Aaron.  The Levites were the priests of Israel.  The Hebrew Name (Wayikra) is taken from the first word of the book, “And he called.”  The object of the book’s pronouncements is not just the priests of Israel, but rather the entire people.  It is not a book of doctrine.  Its contents address the ritual and cultic life of Israel. Thus it is largely concerned with the Temple and Sacrifice (and the priesthood that was of service in the Temple), and personal holiness and ritual purity.

The traditional author is Moses, but modern scholarship assigns the book to a much later time.  It most likely developed at the end of the Kings of Judea (around the seventh century BCE) and continued to be edited into a final form some time during or after the exilic period (around the sixth to the fourth century BCE).  The book would have had two primary periods of importance, perhaps stemming first from the reforms of Josiah, and later as people returned from exile and sought to restore temple worship in Jerusalem.  The material was written by people with a priestly bias, hence it is assigned to the P strand.  Some see the Holiness Code as a separate strand that was incorporated into the priestly material.  In the contemporary discussions about the Levitical material it is interesting that many only desire to explore facets of the Law that support a certain political or social view, while ignoring the other provisions.

Track 1:

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain-- that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees-- as far as Zoar. The LORD said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, `I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Although born in the Nile River valley, it is the mountains to which Moses is not only drawn, but on and in which he has some of his most potent moments.  Here, from the sacred mountaintop, Moses is privileged to see the land of promise – the land given by God to Israel.  As the book describes the scope of Moses’ vision of this new land we become aware of an anachronism.  The land of Dan, at the presumable time of writing, lay in the north. The original assignment of the tribe of Dan was to a location in the south. The tribe migrated northward at a later date.  The promise to Abraham is recalled again in verse four, which looks back to the period of the Patriarchs. Moses is not allowed into the land which YHWH has shown to him, and is granted a gracious death, ‘by the word of the Lord.” The Midrash sees this action as “death by a kiss”, a sweet remembrance of Moses’ relationship with YHWH.  Moses’ grave is unknown, largely because, “you shall have no other gods before me.” This powerful leader will live only in memory, but not in a cult.  He dies at 120 years, a number of symbolic importance (3 x 40). And with its reveries on the prophetic era, and on the insuperable prophetic ministry of Moses, the Pentateuch, acknowledging the Spirit’s gifts in Joshua, comes to an end, a new era springing from the old.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:

1.     How is Joshua designated as a new leader for Israel?
2.     What are your thoughts about God’s “death by a kiss” for Moses?  What images does it bring up for you.
3.     Are there eras in your life, as there were in the life of Moses?

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 Domine, refugium

Lord, you have been our refuge *
from one generation to another.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.

You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.

You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.

In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.

Return, O LORD; how long will you tarry? *
be gracious to your servants.

Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; *
so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.

Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us *
and the years in which we suffered adversity.

Show your servants your works *
and your splendor to their children.

May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; *
prosper the work of our hands;
prosper our handiwork.

Our attention is quickly drawn to Moses (the ascription of the psalm is avoided in the BCP/LBW translation), “A prayer of Moses, man of God.” Rooted in his mortality, we then perceive the God who has been both refuge and abode for generations. Thus the psalm contrasts Moses’ mortality with God’s immortality.  The next verses underscore that contrast, “You bring man back to the dust”, and “For a thousand years in your eyes are like yesterday gone.” Especially beautify is the verse dealing with sleep, death, dawn and renewal.

The lectionary selection skips to verse 13, where God is asked to return and to see the state of God’s people. Using the metaphor of the day as the scene and stage upon and within which life is lived, the psalmist requests God’s on-going presence in time and in the cyclical renewal of each day.  It reminds me of Martin Luther’s explanation of Baptism in the Small Catechism,

What then is the significance of such a baptism with water? - Answer.
It signifies that daily the old person in us with all our sins and evil desires is to be drowned through sorrow for sin and repentance, and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.[1]

The final verse is translated by Robert Alter as, “And may the sweetness of the master, our God be upon us and the work of our hands firmly found for us.”[2] He observes that this is the action that is used for undergirding dynasties, or for keeping large buildings. It is, pardon my pun, foundational.

Breaking open Psalm 90:

1.     What are the mortalities of your life?
2.     How do you live with the reality of death?
3.     How are you reborn each day?


Track 2:

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Although we are two chapters into the so-called Holiness Code, it is this verse that effectively enunciates the Code’s purpose and themes, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The verses that immediately follow recount some of the Decalogue, and provisions for sacrifice. At verse thirteen begins a series of decrees that are of a social nature, dealing with the deaf and the blind, and striking something of a social balance, "you shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich.” Suddenly we find ourselves really in a commentary on the Decalogue as the author speaks about slander, murder, and vengeance.  These are the practicalities of day-to-day holiness.

Breaking open Leviticus:

1.     In what ways are you holy?
2.     How do you strive to be holy?
3.     How do you treat people less fortunate than you?

Psalm 1 Page Beatus vir qui non abiit

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

As we (in the Bible Study Group at Saint Mark’s Church, Santa Clara, CA.) have been discovering in our study of Ivoni Richter Reimer’s study on Women in the Acts of the Apostles[3] the verbs that begin this psalm can be signs of important religious, cultic, or educational activity[4].  The psalmist praises those who have not “walked” (pursued a course of action), “stood” (aligned him or herself with), or “sat” (accepted the opinion or teachings of an individual or school) with the wicked, or with offenders, or with scoffers.  We are talking about a different kind of person here.  This is the person who “meditates” (in the Hebrew, literally, “murmurs”) on the Law.  If you have ever been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem you will understand the power of the word “murmur.”

What follows are the results of holiness (see Leviticus above) and the psalmist's use of powerful images rooted in creation and in the cycle of the day.  Here holiness is seen in the stability of being planted by a constant supply of water, the production of fruit, and a liveliness that confounds the seasons. Contrasted with this image is a scene of the unholy – one word describes them “chaff”, useless leavings consigned to the wind.

Breaking open Psalm 1:

1.     Who do you think are the councils of the wicked?
2.     In what ways have your participated (or not) with them?
3.     How do you meditate?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Paul had his problems in Philippi (See Acts 16) – accusations by disreputable people, and complaints to the authorities by certain Jews.  This leads to imprisonment and to ministry.  The passage speaks to a time when philosophers and “missionaries” were a dime-a-dozen.  Paul pleads that this is not the case with him, for our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery.” Although we might think otherwise, this is not a man who is feathering his own nest with false praise. He glories in his ministry of nursing the faithful “her own children.” The closing verse of the pericope underscores the relationship that Paul feels for these people. 

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
  1. What does the image of Paul as a nurse bring to you.
  2. In the preaching that you have heard over time, what sounded “made up” to you?
  3. What did you receive as genuine?

St. Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

`The Lord said to my Lord,
"Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

The pericope on the question about taxes is followed by another pericope that involves a question about resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33).  First it was the Pharisees, and then the Sadducees, and now we are back to the Pharisees again.  Now they reach to the true aim of their questioning – Jesus and the Law.  They ask what is the greatest of the Commandments, which is followed by another question, this time one posed by Jesus. Any scribe worth his salt would have know the answer to the first question (in part), for it was recited daily by Jews in the Great Shema. The second half that Jesus supplies is from Leviticus 19:18, a practice known in Jewish catechetics. 

Now it is Jesus’ turn – he asks about their thoughts on the Messiah, “Whose son is he?” The reply is quick, “David’s” (see Psalm 110:1). Why does Matthew preserve this conversation?  Some commentators argue that Matthew may be actually devaluing the designation of Jesus as “David’s son.” Matthew may be arguing for stronger terminology and identity.  Although both Messiah and “David’s son”, Jesus is more.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     What were the Pharisees hoping to accomplish?
2.     What was Jesus hoping to accomplish?
3.     What “stronger terminology” do you use for Jesus.

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Luther, M (2001) Luthers’ Small Catechism, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN., p. 48
[2] Alter, R. (2007) The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, p. 320.
[3] Richter Reimer, I (1995) Women in the Acts of the Apostles: a feminist liberation perspective, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN.
[4] See especially her comments on the person and ministry of Lydia (Chapter 4), and the other women who gathered with her and with Paul and Silas in Acts. 

13 October 2014

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, 19 October 2014

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96

I Thessalonians 1:1-10
St. Matthew 22:15-22

Background: Cyrus
Second Isaiah extols the virtues of Cyrus II of Persia, also known as Cyrus the Great. It is not vain praise, for Cyrus the Mede, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, and author of the Cyrus Cylinder that outlined perhaps the oldest declaration of human rights.  He strikes this latter Isaiah as a gift from God for his so-called Edict of Restoration, which allowed Jews to return to the Levant, rebuild city walls and temple, and resume the life of their ancestors.  This largess was not only visited upon the Jews but also seemed to be a personal and national policy in Persia.  Other national groups enjoyed these provisions as well.  The lands under his suasion encompassed the ancient lands of Mesopotamian culture, Sumer and Akkad, Babylon and Media along with most of Southwest Asia, along with sections of Central Asia, and the Caucasus. His empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River in India. He reigned for thirty years.

Track 1:

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to the LORD, "See, you have said to me, `Bring up this people'; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, `I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.' Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people." He said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." And he said to him, "If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth."

The LORD said to Moses, "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray." And he said, "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. But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." And the LORD continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."

This text is bound up in the Hebrew vocables for “presence”, “face”. “knowing”, “glory” and “goodness.” All play a role, as Moses pleads with God that God would continue to be present with the people, God’s nation. Perhaps it is Moses’ weariness that makes for this request on his part. Given the pattern of mumbling, and unfaithfulness that have been evident to us in these last weeks, Moses may wonder if God might leave them to their own devices in the wilderness.  Thus he makes his request, “whom will you send with me?” Moses knew God’s presence and mission in the vision of the burning bush, and now he needs a deeper knowledge of (perhaps even relationship with) God.  Receiving God’s assurances about God’s continuing presence, Moses then wants to deepen his knowledge or relationship with God. “Show me your glory, I pray.” The resulting theophany, like the experience that Elijah has in the wilderness, is profound yet humbling.  It is not God’s glory that is hidden from Moses as God passes by Moses, hidden in the cleft of the rock and shielded by God’s palm.  God wants Moses to understand that such a vision would be impossible for a human to bear, “I shall make all my goodness pass in front of you.” Thus it is not the kavod (the glory or weightiness) that passes by but rather the tuv – the goodness of God that Moses glimpses.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. In what way might God’s goodness be too much for a human to comprehend or see?
  2. How is your relationship with God like Moses’, in what ways is it not?
  3. How does God accompany you in life?

Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit

The LORD is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.

The LORD is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.

Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.

"O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."

Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.

Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the LORD, and he answered them.

He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.

O LORD our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.

Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the LORD our God is the Holy One.

Suitably connected to Moses’ vision in the first reading, this vision of God as God of the nations, enthroned upon the cherubim, gives a greater physicality to God’s presence than the subtle vision that Moses is given.  Up until the sixth verse we are in awe of a God who is over all the nations, images that are tied up with ancient near eastern kingship and power.  At the sixth verse this cosmic view abruptly changes to a more national aspect.  The prototypical prophets and priests are recalled – Moses and Aaron, and Samuel. The journey through the wilderness is recalled, “he spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud,” and a hoped for faithfulness is declaimed. Here the vision is one of a people gathered to worship YHWH the God of Israel, who meets God’s people with reproof and with forgiveness.

Breaking open Psalm 99:
  1. How do you envision God?
  2. How does God envision you?
  3. How does God speak to you?


Track 2:

Isaiah 45:1-7

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him--
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the LORD,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the LORD do all these things.

Just as a point of comparison, read lines 9-15 of the Cyrus Cylinder, which describes Cyrus’ relationship with Marduk, the god of Babylon:

Enlil-of-the-gods became extremely angry at their complaints, and […] their territory. The gods who lived within them left their shrines, angry that he had made (them) enter into Shuanna (Babylon). Ex[alted Marduk, Enlil-of-the-Go]ds, relented. He changed his mind about all the settlements whose sanctuaries were in ruins, and the population of the land of Sumer and Akkad who had become like corpses, and took pity on them. He inspected and checked all the countries, seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything. He made the land of Guti and all the Median troops prostrate themselves at his feet, while he shepherded in justice and righteousness the black-headed people whom he had put under his care. Marduk, the great lord, who nurtures his people, saw with pleasure his fine deeds and true heart, and ordered that he should go to Babylon. He had him take the road to Tintir (Babylon), and, like a friend and companion, he walked at his side.[1]

The phraseology and vocabulary should seem familiar to us, as Cyrus and his relationship with the deity are described for us.  Similar phrases appear in our text for this morning:
            Cyrus is YHWH’s anointed (verse 1)
            YHWH holds Cyrus by the right hand (verse 1)
            YHWH calls Cyrus by name (verses 3b and 4b)
            YHWH gives Cyrus a name of honor (verse 4b)
            YHWH binds him (verse 5b)

Thus, in many ways the second of the Isaiah’s mirrors the honorifics and relationships described in the Cylinder – only here the agency is through YHWH and not the god of Babylon. There is a distinct difference here that creates problems with the limits of what we can say about God. In Genesis God separates the dark from the light, but does not create the dark.  In second Isaiah, however, we have a different perspective, “I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.” This all-powerful God also makes for salvation, and therein lays the difference. In his descriptions of YHWH and Cyrus, this Isaiah tests the limits of human language to describe the role that God plays in life and creation.  Cyrus is anointed for God’s purposes and for the good of God’s people.  The implicit universalism is limited by this intent. The weal and woe that God creates is distinctly limited to the situation at hand (Israel and Babylon), and the dualism of the Persians is set aside.

Breaking open the Isaiah:
  1. Can you think of any contemporary rulers who might be called “messiah” or “anointed”?
  2. In this reading is God, just the God of Israel, or something more?  How?
  3. What do you find unutterable about God?

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing to the LORD, all the whole earth.

Sing to the LORD and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.

For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.

As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the LORD who made the heavens.

Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!

Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the LORD honor and power.

Ascribe to the LORD the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.

Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.

Tell it out among the nations: "The LORD is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the LORD when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.]

This psalm is, I suppose, a corrective for any confusion entertained by the first reading from Isaiah.  Here we have a pastiche of lines from other psalms meant to praise the majesty of God.  The familiarity of these lines would make for a memorable psalm, one kept easily in the heart.  The sentiments here are not limited to Israel alone, but to the whole of the earth.  In the fourth and fifth verses we have a curious relationship. “he is more to be feared than all gods” is met with “as for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols (literally ‘ungods’.” The former seems to acknowledge a period of time where YHWH was primary among the gods, while the later seems to come from a more monotheistic time.  None-the-less, it is God, the creator of heaven and earth who is lifted up here. The whole of creation including “the peoples” offer praise, thanksgiving, and tribute to the God who is above all Gods.

Breaking open the Psalm 96:
  1. What is your favorite psalm?  Why?
  2. Can your find parts of it in this psalm? What?
  3. What are the “ungods” of our time?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Having completed our lectio continua through Philippians, we now begin a reading through Thessalonians.  Thessalonica, a free city due to its support of Octavian (Augustus) at the battle of Philippi, was a Roman provincial capital, and the home to many Jews, and a plethora of religious cults. Paul and the Christian communities found enemies here, and the subsequent letter focuses on what is to come in the face of what was happening to them in the present.

Paul begins by reminding the Thessalonians that it was God who founded and who continues to care for the Christians of Thessalonica.  Paul sees the word that was committed to them as being especially blessed by the Holy Spirit as well, and thus they became imitators of not only Paul, but of Jesus as well.  The connection with Jesus is telling, for it is not only Jesus’ relationship to the Father and the Spirit that is important here, but also the people’s relationship to the suffering of Jesus as well.  Jesus is seen as the one who will rescue them from “the wrath that is coming.” Thus Paul describes the consequences of their presence in Thessalonica, and the enmity with which they were and are being met. Paul pictures repentance, a turning from the idols so prevalent in the environment, to the “true and living God.”

Breaking open Thessalonians:
  1. How is your life in faith threatened by our times?
  2. Who are the “enemies” of your belief?
  3. How are the difficulties in your life connected to the suffering of Jesus?

St. Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

The parables of the kingdom which we have enjoyed for the past few weeks now give way to a period of questions on the part of others, and warnings on the part of Jesus.  Jesus is met by a tendentious situation.  The Pharisees who would not have supported any taxation by the Roman authorities are present with the Herodians, supporters of Herod (and his puppet status vis a vis the Roman occupation) and Roman taxation. The intent by the parties was to place Jesus in a tenuous situation that might lead to legal charges. Jesus sidesteps the issue by commenting on the nature of “paying” tax. The images of the emperor provide ample evidence that the tax is a “paying something that is due” rather than providing “a gift.” Both emperor and God have given, and now must receive there due is Jesus’ reasoning.  It was an unarguable point.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think is due to the government (Caesar?)
  2. What do you think is due to God?
  3. Do you think that your stewardship is adequate?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Finkel, I , translator, Assistant Keeper, Department of the Middle East, Cyrus Cylinder, The British Museum, lines 9-15.