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Proper 24 | Ordinary Time 29, Cycle A

Sunday between October 16 and October 22 inclusive

We are guided in these texts to perceive God in universal terms as having total power over everything. The world powers in any period, whether they are Cyrus, leader of the Medes and Persians whose armies were conquering nation after nation in their path (Isaiah 45:1-5), or a Caesar who ruled over the vast stretches of the Roman Empire (Matthew 22:17-21), are by comparison to God no more than God’s appointees. These rulers are successful only because of what God is doing in their behalf. God does things at times even though the rulers do not themselves know the Lord (Isaiah 45:1-7) or the Father of Jesus (Matthew 22:15-21) as God. God is in control of everything. The rulers of even the most powerful empires, by contrast, can control only limited aspects of our lives. Therefore, to Caesar, who makes heavy demands on us, we are to give the little tokens, the little coins stamped with the likeness of Caesar’s face. To God, however, we are to give everything, our entire lives.

The texts selected for this week, therefore, are stewardship texts in the deepest sense of the word, highly appropriate for us as we move during the late fall season into stewardship and thanksgiving emphases. In these texts we see stewardship is not something that we have to do. Instead, stewardship is something we do because we want to do it. This type of stewardship, this total giving of one’s self to God, is the primary unifying factor in these texts.

Exodus 33:12-23
The Lord God of Israel is depicted in this text as revealing God’s goodness and glory with total power to be gracious to those on whom God chooses to be gracious and to show mercy for those to whom God wishes to show mercy. Moses wants to have assurance of this power, and God provides this assurance.

Psalm 99
The Lord reigns over all the earth, over all of the people of the world. The Lord is holy and just, forgiving the people, but abolishing the evil they do. Therefore, we are called to worship the Lord and to want to do so.

Isaiah 45:1-7
This text is one of many expressions of the transition necessary in the thinking of the Israelites after they had lost their nation and with it the means by which they had practiced their religion as a “civil religion.” Within their civil religion, they had perceived the Lord as “the God of the nation Israel.” Beyond the geographical boundaries of Israel there were other people in other nations who had their own perceptions of deity described by other names in other languages. In Israel, however, only the Lord God of Israel was to be recognized and worshiped.

After 586 BCE, however, the religious situation of the Israelites was vastly altered, along with their political situation. Their leaders, most of whom had been taken by force to Babylon, were under heavy pressure to break their relationship with the Lord God of Israel entirely, since there was no longer a nation Israel within which the Lord God of Israel could be worshiped. In this new political situation, they were urged to worship Marduk, the God of the Babylonians, and to become Babylonians. It is likely that the majority of the Israelites who had been taken to Babylon did accept Marduk as their lord and became assimilated into Babylonian culture and religion. Nevertheless, a few, a remnant of a remnant, as they called themselves, took the other option that they perceived to be open to them. They perceived the Lord of the nation Israel was actually the Lord of all creation, the Lord of all, the one who had chosen and appointed Cyrus to be a conqueror of nations, to open the gates of walled cities so that Cyrus could subdue his enemies easily, leveled mountains and hills for the convenience of the armies of Cyrus, gave to Cyrus treasures from secret places, appointed Cyrus to help the Lord’s servant Israel, and gave to Cyrus great honor even though Cyrus did not yet recognize that the Lord who had formerly been the Lord of the nation and people of Israel was now actually the Lord God of the entire cosmos. These politically weak and conquered people claimed that the Lord God they worshiped had created light as well as darkness (Isaiah 45:7), and they developed and refined the creation liturgy and confession of faith we have in Genesis 1:1–2:4a. They expanded their perceptions of the Lord God because they wanted to do this not because they had to do so.

Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13)
This psalm also marks the transition from a national concept to a universal concept of the Lord. The Lord is proclaimed in this psalm to be the judge of all people; not merely of the Israelites. The Lord is said to provide marvelous works among all people and to reign among all nations. Therefore, the praises and glory of the Lord shall be acclaimed among all nations, wherever the people of the Lord are scattered.

We also, as we grow in faith and in experience, are encouraged as we read and study this psalm to expand our own perceptions of God as no longer merely the God of our nation but the God of all nations. We are encouraged to make this transition even though our nation continues to exist.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
In this text, Paul gives thanks to God that the Thessalonians have turned away from idols in order to worship and serve God, the one living and true God. Paul perceives God as Father of all and acclaims Jesus as the Christ raised from the dead, our Lord. For Paul, God as Father is to be thanked constantly and our hope for the present and for the future is to be in Jesus Christ as Lord and not in Caesar. Jesus Christ as Lord delivers us from the wrath to come when in Jesus Christ our Lord good will confront evil and prevail over it.

Matthew 22:15-22
Within the context of these texts selected for this week, our emphasis in this Matthew 22:15-22 text will be on the wisdom logion of Jesus in 22:21 that can be paraphrased as “Give back, therefore, to Caesar, the coin that has a likeness to Caesar’s face on it, and give up to God everything that belongs to God, that is, your selves, the coins, and even Caesar himself. All belong to God, whether everyone realizes this or not.” All of this is implied in this logion.

The literary setting for this tremendous logion of Jesus detracts from the logion much of its impact in all three Synoptic Gospel texts. The literary setting causes the hearer to think, “Look how clever our champion is! See how evil are the Pharisees!” The literary setting of this pericope and of those that follow it in a series of controversy dialogues in Matthew 22:15-46 and parallels detract from the message of the Jesus logion because of the anti-Jewish polemic that was so important to many of the followers of Jesus during the time when the Synoptic Gospels were put into written form. Within the twenty-first century, we should not emphasize the identity of people who were in competition with the followers of Jesus late in the first century, especially in view of the horrible treatment of Jews in “Christian” lands during the nineteen centuries since the Gospel According to Matthew was written. Instead, we should emphasize the great stewardship message of the Jesus logion in this text, a message applicable then, now, and always, “The coin belongs to Caesar, but we belong to God!”

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen