Nobody Expects the Christ: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 16 October 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 16 October 2011 (18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A)

Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99  • Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)  • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10  • Matthew 22:15-22

 

To say that the Old Testament mainly concerns Israel is not controversial.  Nor is it false.  But to say “Israel” is not nearly as simple as might first appear.  After all, the descendants of Jacob must claim, in their first generation, four different mothers.  Those who left Egypt in the wake of the divine plagues welcomed along fellow slaves (Exodus 12:38) and do not seem to have distinguished between the biological descendants of Jacob and those claimed by YHWH by virtue of their being slaves.  The bloodline of David goes through Moab as much as it goes through Judah.  And so on.

So when Isaiah brings forth the shocking word from YHWH that the new Messiah is no descendant of David but Cyrus the Persian, the people in exile, though their cheers might have been bittersweet, would not have been strangers to the possibility that a foreign power might be the anointed.  God is always in the business of shocking the world by working through particular individuals that defy expectations (think about the Sunday school lessons you remember–how many involve someone who has no business being prominent rising to prominence?), and Cyrus, a foreigner whose ignorance of the true God the divine oracle acknowledges, will be the next great figure in salvation-history.

Such is not to say, of course, that God’s anointing always follows international power wherever it goes.  After all, the early Church called Jesus several things, Messiah and Lord and Savior among them, that were direct challenges to imperial pretense.  In fact, when Jesus speaks his famous “give unto Caesar” line, he denies that the chunks of metal with the Emperor’s image on them have anything to do, really, with the proper sphere of God’s sovereignty, which is to say the totality of human life.  (To be in the image of God, it seems in this Gospel passage, means to live as divine “currency,” that which goes back and forth in the world testifying to the authority of YHWH.)  As many a New Testament commentator has noted, Jesus in this passage is not dividing the world into sovereign spheres, one governed by God and one by Caesar.  He’s diminishing Caesar’s sphere to no sphere at all.

These moments, when the man of empire Cyrus is named the Christ by divine oracle and when the one who is the eternal Christ cuts off the pretensions of empire, both stand together in the same Bible, and both remind us, if we have minds to remind, that the grand freedom of the God whose name must not be named, whose picture must not be pictured, writes itself on history and on the faithful.

May our devotion to the God of mysterious providence always be a faith that listens.

 

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