St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Saturday, 15 October 2011


October 16                             NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Pentecost 18

Texts:  Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Theme: Two Sides of the Same Coin?  Coins can be used to express diametric opposites: "on the other side of the coin..." and equivalence: "two sides of the same coin".

Introduction.  In the Western World we tend to favour dual thinking, the either/or approach.  We think in terms of right or wrong, black or white, good or bad, winners or losers, strong or weak.  We naturally assume that today's gospel passage is about the political world or the spiritual realm; but is it?  And what are we to make of this passage from Isaiah?  Could God really be using a foreign king to further his divine purposes?  Is God really the creator of darkness as well as light; and does God really send disaster as well as prosperity?  And where does the epistle fit into all this with the people of Thessalonica becoming renowned for their conversion from one mindset (polytheism, Greek secularism, etc) to a very different one (faith in Christ).  There is something in all this about paradox and mystery – which is to say, there is something in all this about God.

Background.  There is no doubt that Cyrus was a real historical figure.  He rose to power in Persia around 550 B.C., and proved himself a brilliant leader and military strategist.  He began expanding his power beyond his national boundaries in 547, and within 2 years he had taken over most of the peninsula of Asia Minor.  In 539 he captured Babylon, before that the great power in the region.  Among his first acts was to grant freedom to many captive people held in Babylon.  He decreed that any Jewish captive who wished to do so could return home to Jerusalem; and he even returned the sacred vessels that had been looted by the Babylonians when they conquered Jerusalem.  In fact, he showed the same generous attitude to people of other nationalities and faiths, but that is not mentioned in the Bible: these are, after all, the Hebrew Scriptures telling Israel's story.

Glance back to the end of chapter 44 and you will find these words: "who says of Cyrus 'he is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please'; he will say of Jerusalem, 'Let it be rebuilt', and of the temple, 'Let its foundations be laid'.  This has given rise to much debate over the timing of this prophecy in relation to the actual event.  There are 3 possibilities:

·        It was written before the event as inspired prophecy:

·        It was written before the event by a politically shrewd observer who could read the 'signs of the time':

·        It was written after the event, with the benefit of hindsight.

The issue of tax raised in the gospel passage was a very important one.  Jerusalem was often under foreign domination and required to pay tribute money to the overlords of the day.  But in 6 A.D. the Roman occupiers had imposed a temple tax; effectively a cut of all money given as offering to the Temple had to be given to the Roman authorities.  This had so enraged some Jews that there had been a violent uprising: to take money from the Temple was to rob God.  The Zealots in Jesus' time still held to this line so it was a very important issue, a political 'hot potato'.

It might be useful to think of our own way of dividing issues up into separate compartments.  Is the oil-spill off Tauranga a transport issue for Stephen Joyce to handle, or an environmental issue for Nick Smith?  Is the sole aim of Fonterra to maximise returns to farmers, or, bearing in mind the importance of milk in a healthy diet for growing children, should Fonterra have a responsibility to keep down the local price of milk?  Is it either/or or both/and that should guide our thinking?

Isaiah.  The first shock is that Cyrus, a foreigner, Gentile, leader of a pagan nation, is referred to as God's "Anointed", meaning "Messiah" or "Christ"!  On the other side of the coin (so to speak!), Cyrus' great military successes are ascribed to God (vv.2-4).  God has summoned (called) Cyrus by name (as we have been called), and has even bestowed on him a title of great honour.  And all this even though, we are assured twice, Cyrus has never acknowledge God.  Even all-conquering foreign kings are under the governance of God for there is none like him in the whole world.  In God there is no duality: God is both/and, not either/or.  He creates both light and darkness, prosperity and disaster.

Taking It Personally.

·        Looking back over your life, can you see God's involvement in it even when you were quite unaware that God was at work in and with you?  Was there a time when you did not "acknowledge" God?

·        Many have claimed that the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism was God's doing, working through people like Mikail Gorbachev.  In the light of this passage what do you think of claims such as these?

·        How do you feel about the statement by Isaiah that God is responsible for darkness and light, disaster and prosperity?  (If you are tempted to assume that 'good' people get the prosperity and 'bad' people get the disaster, remind yourself of Job!)

·        Where was God in the Pike River Mine disaster, the Christchurch earthquakes, or the Tauranga oil-spill?

Thessalonians.  This may well be the earliest letter we have from St Paul.  He visited Thessalonica (modern-day Salonika) on his second missionary journey.  The city was large and important, with a busy sea-port and all the dubious behaviour that went with that.  It was also on an important trade route, the Via Egnatia, and had a large Jewish community with a synagogue.  When many people started to be converted to the new faith it aroused deep hostility in the Jewish community, and Paul was driven out of the city by them.  Widespread persecution of the new converts followed; yet many remained firm in their faith and this became widely known in the area.  Hence Paul writes to them warmly, commending them for their faith, and lauding them as great examples to other struggling faith communities.

Taking It Personally.

·        In your prayers do you regularly give thanks for particular people or groups, family friends, workmates, your local church community, your neighbourhood, etc?

·        Is there someone you seek to imitate as a person of faith?  Who have been or are examples of faithful people for you?  Have you given thanks to God for them?

·        Have you in turn become a model of faith for others to imitate?  Has the gospel rang out from you; is your faith well-known to people who know you well?


Matthew.  Recall again that this is in Holy Week, after the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus has upset the money traders and others making money from the pilgrims in the Temple.  Notice, too, that this is the first of three issues raised with Jesus, before he raises one of his own.  Thus, he is asked about paying taxes, the resurrection life in relation to divorcees, and the greatest of all the commandments.  He raises the issue of the Davidic descent of the Messiah.  It's all rather tedious stuff, as the religious hierarchy and an assortment of powerful allies make one last attempt to trap him into self-incrimination.


Today the Pharisees and the Herodians team up.  Not natural allies, as the latter support the puppet-king, Herod, and favour collaboration with the Roman overlords, and the Pharisees do not.  [Which means, of course, that the Herodians would favour paying taxes to Caesar, and the Pharisees would not.]  After an opening flourish of nauseating flattery they put their question in classic binary mode: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, yes or no?  Jesus begins his response by making it clear he knows exactly what they're up to, and then finesses them by asking for a coin used in the payment of taxes.  The implication is that Jesus and his disciples do not have such a coin and therefore cannot pay the tax, whereas his questioners do have one and could pay the tax.


The coin bears an image of Tiberius Caesar [emperor from 14-37A.D.], and the inscription read: "Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus."  Such a claim to divinity (or descent from divinity) was blasphemous to the Jews.  Jesus' response uses the word "render" (not merely "give").  It is a technical word meaning to pay a debt owed to the payee.  Thus Jesus is saying, if you owe something to Caesar pay him what you owe; likewise, whatever you owe to God repay that debt.


The subtlety of all this is two-fold.  First, none of us can ever repay the enormous debt we owe to God.  Secondly, the coin belongs to Tiberius because it bears his image.  But we bear God's image, so we belong to God.  God's claim over us is total; Caesar's claim, if any, is a few coins.




Taking It Personally.

·        To what extent do you separate your religious beliefs from your business decisions?  Do you live in two separate realms, the secular and the spiritual, or is there only one? 

·        Are you an either/or person or a both/and person generally?

·        Take out a coin and look at it.  Look at the Queen's head on it.  Remind yourself it bears her image.  Now remind yourself whose image you bear.  Stay with that thought for some time.  How do you feel about it?

·        How do you feel about paying taxes?  Are you glad of the opportunity to share in providing health care and education to others, or do you begrudge it and seek ways to minimise your tax liability?

·        Do you agree or disagree that these are valid questions of faith?

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