NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I doubt the Pharisees in our gospel lesson for this Sunday were thrilled about having to trade in Caesar’s coin. It must have galled them when Jesus pointed out in the presence of the people that they were carrying such a coin with Caesar’s graven image upon it. Very likely, it bore the inscription “Caesar is Lord.” Mere possession of such a graven image violated the restrictions in the First Commandment (Second Commandment for most non-Lutheran folks). Yet what else could the Pharisees do? Rome was the dominant reality. There was no realistic prospect of throwing off Roman rule. Moreover, cooperation with Rome yielded tangible benefits. Herod the Great, the Roman appointed “King of the Jews” had been allowed to construct the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. The Jews were exempt from requirements of participation in civil/religious Roman ceremonies applicable to other groups. They were allowed to live in their own land according to their own customs.
Of course, all of these benefits came at a price. Having to trade in Caesar’s coin was just one of the concessions that had to be made. Huge portions of the temple tax imposed on all males went to Rome. Rome took its share of profits from the sale of animals in the temple for use in sacrifice. And, of course, Rome imposed its reign by means of terror. The cross was the ultimate symbol of Caesar’s power. Nothing sends a clearer message about who is in charge than a man writhing on a cross in a public place with a sign over his head, “King of the Jews.” Few people would be eager to claim that title after witnessing such a gruesome spectacle!
So the Pharisees in our gospel lesson were realists. They understood that, in the words of Laura Izibor, “Life’s one big compromise.” Life for Jews under Roman rule was as good as it could be under the circumstances. In the past, it had often been a lot worse. So what choice do we have but to hold our noses, pick up Caesar’s coin and go about our business as best we can? There is no other alternative.
But there is. The Pharisees were well aware of the story of the three children in the fiery furnace. It was a staple in the Sunday School of my childhood. Today, not so much. Anyway, when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Judah and Jerusalem, he brought back with him to Babylon three young Jewish boys who showed promise and intelligence. It was no doubt his hope that they would serve in his administration, possibly assisting in the governance of his newly acquired province of Judah. But the king was something of a megalomaniac. At the insistence of his counselors, who were becoming jealous of the three young men and the attention they received from the king, Nebuchadnezzar built a statute of himself and commanded all in his kingdom to worship it. Naturally, the three young Jewish boys refused, knowing well that to do so would constitute a betrayal of their faith. When called before Nebuchadnezzar, they were given a stark choice: worship the image or be thrown alive into a fiery furnace. Their response to the king is telling:
“Oh Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18.
The story has a happy ending. God does indeed rescue the three young people from the fiery furnace. I encourage you to read about it at Daniel 3. But things might not have ended so happily and the young men were well aware of that. They were not possessed of any naïve optimism. God could deliver and they fervently hoped that he would. “But if not…,” even if it means being burned alive, the young men will not worship the king’s image. They knew the price of loyalty to their God. Jesus was also well aware of the price he would pay for obedience to God rather than to human authority. The Pharisees also knew of that price, but they, unlike Jesus and the three young men, were not prepared to pay it. Better bow to Caesar’s image and live to fight another day.
I find it hard to be critical of the Pharisees. I have compromised my faith under circumstances far less threatening than the cudgels of Rome and Babylon. I have put professional responsibilities ahead of moral conviction; financial security above generosity; my need for approval over my duty to speak truthfully; personal safety over concern for the vulnerable. I know that my comfortable middle class existence comes at a terrible cost to the planet and one third of its struggling people. Though I tremble at the responsibility this entails, I know that I have not done the work that true repentance and faith require. Like the Pharisees, I would prefer to keep both my faith in Jesus and my comfortable life style under the American Empire. But Jesus is telling me that I can’t have it both ways. So now what?
Chapter 40 of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of the book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” It comprises Isaiah 40-55. The historical context is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizens of the nations it conquered. This would reduce the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit the peoples living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of Second Isaiah recognizes in this new historical development the hand of Israel’s God creating an opportunity for the people of Israel to return to their homeland-and much, much more.
In our reading for Sunday the prophet makes the startling announcement that Cyrus is God’s anointed, his “meshiach” or “messiah.” Vs. 1. This term is usually equated with one raised up from within Israel to lead the nation to victory against an enemy. It is notable that Cyrus is a pagan. The exiles might have been incensed because God did not raise up a child of Israel to fill the role of savior. But the prophet responds that God’s way of doing things is not to be questioned. The ancient prophecies will be fulfilled God’s way. God is the master of his words, not the servant. Moreover, God’s salvation is not for Israel only. It is for the ends of the earth and all nations which, when they see how the miraculous success of Cyrus fulfills God’s purpose for his people, will worship Israel’s God as God alone.
“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…” vs. 2. A very vivid portrayal of God’s saving intervention-again used typically for one raised up within Israel. The following verses constitute a fairly accurate picture of the success Cyrus has had thus far. The prophet indicates that the startling success and lack of opposition Cyrus meets in his conquests is proof positive that God is going before him. According to the prophet, Cyrus will one day recognize Israel’s God as the author of his success. Vs. 3. For though Cyrus has been surnamed by this God, he does not yet know the God of Jacob. Vs. 5. As has been seen before, God’s calling a person by name establishes a relationship of special ownership. Nevertheless, as much as God is doing for Cyrus, it is not Cyrus and his empire, but Israel that is to be the chief beneficiary of Persia’s campaign. Vs. 4.
Verse 8 makes clear that the God of Israel is the driving force behind history, though neither Cyrus nor the Babylonian captors know it. This, however, is more a confession of faith than a metaphysical assertion. Although the Persian victories over Babylon testify to God’s saving purpose for Israel, they do not make the case conclusively. As future episodes in Israel’s history will demonstrate, the return of the Jews to their ruined homeland was nothing like the glorious homecoming foretold in many of the prophecies of Second Isaiah. The bleak realities of life for the returning exiles in Palestine, the difficulties experienced with rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple along with failed expectations for a new age led many of the people to doubt the prophesies that once inspired them and assured them that God was at work in their midst.
One might have expected the Jews to discard the unfulfilled prophesies and their faith in the God whose promises seemed to have failed. Obviously, they did not. Just as they hung on to the promises of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” and his “peaceable kingdom” promised by the 8th Century prophet Isaiah centuries before the Babylonian conquest (Isaiah 11:1-9), so the Jews continued to find hope and comfort in the words of Second Isaiah centuries after both the Persian and Babylonian empires were but memories. These prophetic oracles continue to shape Jewish faith, hope and identity.
Disciples of Jesus also look for the fulfilment of these promises through the coming of their Lord in glory. Care must be taken, however, in speaking about this hope. Just as the actual return of the Jews from exile fell short of Second Isaiah’s expectations, so also we do not experience the triumph of Jesus over sin and death prefigured in his resurrection in the fullness expressed by the New Testament writings. The two thousand year period between Jesus’ resurrection and the present day has not extinguished the church’s faith. It has, however, forced the church to reinterpret, rearticulate and expand its understanding of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection in every age. “That” God will fulfill God’s promise to us in Christ Jesus is not in doubt. But the “how” and the “when” remain a mystery. The Body of Christ is called to continue the suffering love of Jesus in the world, living now the kingdom for whose coming it prays.
This psalm is included as part of a hymn commissioned by David to celebrate the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, his newly established capital. (See I Chronicles 16:23-33) Scholars do not agree on whether this psalm was composed originally for that occasion. The psalm bears some resemblance to enthronement liturgies used to celebrate the crowning of a new Judean king. As I Chronicles was composed rather late in Israel’s history (after the Exile), it is likely that its author appropriated this psalm into his/her work. Of course, it is also possible that the psalm did in fact have its origin in the annual commemoration of the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem so that the author of I Chronicles was simply placing the psalm back into its historical context. In either case, the psalm calls upon the nations to acknowledge Israel’s God as God over all the earth.
The psalm calls for a “new song,” reminding us that Israel’s God is forever doing a “new thing” requiring fresh expressions of praise. Vs. 1. It is for this reason that worship must never become mired in the past. Old familiar hymns are fine. But if that is all you ever sing, then you need to ask yourself whether you are properly giving thanks to God for all that is happening in your life today and whether your heart is properly hopeful for the future God promises.
“The gods of the nations are idols.” Vs. 5. If God is God, everything else is not God. An idol is therefore anything that claims to be God or which demands worship, praise and obedience that can only rightfully be demanded by God. The reference in the psalm is obviously to the national gods of rival nations, but idolatry can as well attach to nationalist pride, wealth, political power, human leaders or anything else to which people pay godlike homage.
“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples…” vs. 7. The psalmist calls upon all nations to worship Israel’s God whose justice and mercy belong to them also. In this hymn Israel is putting into practice her calling to be a light to the nations of the world by calling them to join with all creation in praise of the one true God. This is the way of blessing for all of creation as verses 11-13 make clear.
“For he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” Vs. 13. In the main, Israel looked forward to God’s judgment not with terror and foreboding, but with hope and expectation. She longed for the day when God’s way of justice and peace embodied in the covenant would finally become the way of the nations. Yet the prophets needed to remind Israel that, to the extent her own national life failed to embody that covenant, the “day of the Lord” would be for her “darkness and not light.” Amos 5:18-20. Judgment therefore has a double aspect. It is good news in that when the kingdom comes on earth as in heaven, life will take the shape of the Peaceable Kingdom described in Isaiah just as that kingdom is lived in part and imperfectly now under the sign of the cross as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. But the question is: are we ready to live in such a kingdom? Are we prepared to let go of our stake in the status quo in order to take hold of the coming kingdom? When the kingdom comes, will we experience it as the fulfilment of our hope or as our worst nightmare come to fruition? I suspect that for all of us it is a little of both. I think that is what Martin Luther had in mind when he described the disciple of Jesus as simultaneously saint and sinner. The kingdom is struggling to be born in each human heart just as it is struggling for realization under the drama of historical events, the groaning of the environment, the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised. A disciple knows well that s/he is not ready to live faithfully, joyfully and obediently under God’s gentle reign. But s/he also knows that what God completed in Jesus, God will complete in him or her and for all creation.
As we will be reading excerpts from Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica for the next couple of weeks, a few preliminary comments are in order. This letter was written about 45-52 A.D. making it the earliest of the New Testament writings. Its purpose was to encourage the church of Thessalonica in its struggle to live out its faith in a hostile environment.
According to the Book of Acts, Paul came to Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, somewhere between 40-45 C.E., after having been driven out of Philippi. As was his practice, he visited a synagogue and engaged the congregation in discussions about Jesus as the Messiah for about three weeks. Acts 17:1-3. Some of the Jews and “god-fearing” Greeks were persuaded by Paul’s message. Acts 17:4. The congregational leaders, however, rejected Paul’s preaching and publically accused him of sedition against Rome. These accusations incited a riot against Paul and his new converts. Acts 17:5-9. The new believers escorted Paul out of town for his protection. Acts 17:10-12. I leave to people who care about such things the inconsequential issue of whether the Book of Acts can be relied upon as a historically accurate source. Since our 19th Century notion of “historical accuracy” was not wired into the brains of the New Testament writers and is of limited utility in our 21st Century, I find the question uninteresting. One might as well contemplate how history would have turned out if the Aztecs had developed the atomic bomb. It is clear from the letter itself that there were at least three weighty concerns for the Thessalonican congregation. 1) Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development and is concerned that it lacks maturity and solid leadership; 2) Paul’s character, motives and integrity have been challenged by some unknown critics; and 3) church members have theological/pastoral concerns about death and dying.
Our reading consists of the opening chapter of I Thessalonians which begins with Paul’s customary greeting in the name of “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 1. The letter is actually addressed from Silvanus and Timothy as well as Paul, but there can be little doubt that Paul is the principal author. Timothy, we know, was a close companion of Paul whose ministry is mentioned in I & II Corinthians as well as in this letter. “Silvanus” might be an alternate form of the name “Silas,” Paul’s chosen companion for his second missionary journey according to the Book of Acts. Acts 15:36-41.
Paul praises the church for its courageous faithfulness in the face of affliction. The church’s suffering is a mirror image of Paul’s own experience of opposition in bringing the good news of Jesus to Thessalonica. Vss. 5-6. Just as the Thessalonican church amplifies the ministry begun by Paul, so also does it amplify the good news throughout the Mediterranean world. Vss. 7-8. The nature of the church’s faithful confession and the source of its suffering is clear from Paul’s remark about how well known it is that the Thessalonican believers “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” Vs. 9. The worship of idols did not consist principally in the exercise of sincere religious faith. By this time in history, most of Rome’s subjects no longer believed in the gods of antiquity. These gods had become symbols of Roman power, Roman supremacy and Roman values. Worshiping them was more an act of patriotism than religious devotion. Nevertheless, in the view of the early church, worship of the state and worship of false deities amounted to the same thing. One cannot confess that Jesus is Lord and simultaneously declare that Caesar is Lord. The political nature of this declaration that “Jesus is Lord” is spelled out in the witness of the Book of Acts to Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica:
“5But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus. The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.” Acts 17:5-9.
We American protestants, hung over as we are from our fifteen and one half century Constantinian drinking binge, are still trying to disentangle ourselves from the religious patronage we have become accustomed to providing the state. Though the United States has never had a state church as such, it has leaned heavily on mainline protestant churches to uphold its middle class values, give religious content to its ideologies, bless its wars and sanctify its policies. More than half our churches still have American flags in them and I suspect that removing them would raise a greater outcry than removing the cross. We have a difficult time separating our identities as American citizens from our baptismal identity as subjects of Christ’s kingdom. That is largely because it has never occurred to most of us that there could be any such separation. Now the separation is upon us. America has now learned that it can go on its way very nicely without the church. The church, however, is still reeling from the break up, wondering what it said that was wrong, refusing to acknowledge that the divorce is final and wondering whether there is any way to patch things up.
It will come as no surprise to anyone following this blog that I think it is high time to accept the divorce as final (with thanksgiving!). I find here one more instance of support for the thesis that the most radical thing the church can do is simply be the church and stop worrying about whether that is relevant to anything else on anyone’s agenda.
There are two very important lessons here, each deserving separate treatment, which the common lectionary, in its infinite wisdom, has seen fit to cram into one reading. The first is the controversy over tribute to Caesar which happens to be one of the most commonly misinterpreted texts in the New Testament. Typically, preachers have treated this lesson as a discussion about the role of government. The issue pressed by the Pharisees and Herodians sets up a false dichotomy, or so the argument goes. It is not a matter of God vs. Caesar, but what is owed to each. Because the kingdom Jesus proclaimed was a “heavenly” kingdom practiced through personal morality, it does not displace Caesar’s role as emperor. Faith does not require disloyalty to Caesar, but rather complements his civil authority with heartfelt obedience to a deeper personal morality. Thus, Caesar is simply “the left hand of God” at work in the world maintaining a semblance of order so that the higher morality of faith can thrive.
Nothing could be further from Jesus’ message here. Note first of all that the Herodians, with whom the Pharisees were here allied, were collaborators with Rome. They had no sincere wish to engage Jesus in a discussion about how a conscientious Jew lives faithfully under pagan domination. Nor was the issue of loyalty to Caesar one that required extensive discussion. The First Commandment is clear. “You shall have no gods beside God.” Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5: 7. Moreover, you are not to make or worship any image as divine. Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10. (Actually, that is the Second Commandment for most non-Lutheran folks). So when Jesus is confronted with the question about paying taxes to Caesar, he asks his opponents for the coin with which they intend to pay the tax. It is noteworthy that Jesus must ask them for this coin. He obviously does not have such a coin in his possession. The fact that his opponents do speaks volumes. The minute they produce the coin and hand it to Jesus, the argument is finished. Jesus has already made his point. Now it’s just a matter of having a little fun with his opponents.
With a little imagination, we can readily see how this confrontation plays out. “Oh, my!” Says Jesus. “This coin has an image on it!” His opponents are now beginning to squirm. Just as Jesus turned the question of authority back on the heads of these opponents a couple of Sunday’s ago by bringing up their compromised position on John the Baptist, so now he confronts them in the presence of the people with a clear violation of the First Commandment. “Sorry.” Says Jesus. “I didn’t quite catch that. Could you speak a tad louder, please? Whose image did you say was on this coin?”
“Caesar’s,” they mutter in a barely audible reply. The crowd has got to be loving this.
“Well, then,” says Jesus handing back the coin, “Let’s just give back to Caesar what clearly belongs to him and give God alone what belongs to God.” Jesus’ opponents shuffle away with their idolatrous coin while Jesus himself is as free of idolatrous images as he was to begin with. Point made. The state is not God. It has no right to demand that a disciple take up the sword to fight its wars when the disciple’s Lord has commanded him to put up the sword. The state has no right to demand ultimate allegiance from a disciple that can be given only to the disciple’s Lord. Modern nationalism and its call for ultimate allegiance and blood sacrifice, no less than First Century imperialism, is rank idolatry. This is not a matter of both/and. It is a matter of either/or.
Next we move to the question about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees’ hypothetical is not as outlandish as it might seem. A woman incapable of bearing children might be divorced for that reason by any number of husbands. Perhaps that was the fate of the woman at the well in John’s gospel who had had five husbands. John 4:16-19. If that were the case here, the woman would not have belonged to any of the seven brothers because they would all have divorced her. In order for the hypothetical to work, the brothers must all have died while legally married to the woman in question. The logic employed by the Sadducees is absolutely air tight. If God had intended to raise the dead, God would never have instituted a requirement for remarriage, as such a practice would obviously create insoluble problems in the next life.
There is a serious concern behind this hypothetical for all of us who have been married even just once. Will those relationships that have formed us and become a part of our identity survive into the post-resurrection world? If not, then how can there be any meaningful resurrection? Who am I if not the product of those whom I love and those who have loved me? Jesus responds by informing his opponents that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Vs. 30. Given how little the Bible actually tells us about what angels are like, this isn’t much of an answer. Perhaps it is Jesus’ way of saying that the question cannot be answered this side of eternity. Paul deals with substantially the same question in his first letter to the Corinthian church, which asks him what sort of body believers will receive in the resurrection. Paul is less diplomatic than Jesus. He says that the question is stupid. I Corinthians 15:35-36. Nevertheless, he goes on to answer it-after a fashion. He uses the growth of a plant from a seed as an analogy. Clearly there is continuity between the seed and the plant. They are one in the same. Yet the plant is so radically different, more complex and beautiful than the seed from which it came that one would never believe the two to be related if this miracle of growth were not taking place all around us every day. As difficult as it would be for one looking only at the seed of a plant s/he had never seen full grown to figure out what the full grown plant will look like, so difficult is it for us to imagine our bodily existence in the world of the resurrection. I Corinthians 15:35-50. Perhaps John says it best of all: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.” I John 3:2. That is really all we need to know.
Next, Jesus turns to what is the real issue, namely, the power of God. The Sadducees are not lacking in knowledge or understanding. Indeed, from a formal scriptural point of view, they have the stronger argument. Ancient Judaism had no conception of life after death beyond a vague notion of “sheol,” a shadowy underworld where there was little if any conscious existence. Though in no way similar to later notions of hell and eternal punishment, sheol was the dead end to which all life eventually came. The psalms seeking salvation from sheol are best understood not as a plea for eternal life, but a request not to be taken to sheol prematurely. Resurrection is spoken of specifically only in the Book of Daniel, one of the latest books in the Hebrew Scriptural cannon. Daniel 12:1-4.
Nevertheless, the Sadducees’ scriptural arguments fail and not for lack of interpretive skill, but due to a lack of faith and imagination. God is the master of his words, not the servant. Law, whether it consists of moral precepts or principles of natural science, is part and parcel of the universe God created. As such, it cannot bind its maker. God hardly needs scriptural sanction to raise the dead and so the only question is whether God is willing and able to do so. Jesus says “yes” to both. If God, the great “I Am,” introduces himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” does one dare to say that this God is a deity of the dead? No, says Jesus, all who are loved and remembered by God are alive in God. They are loved back to life by God.
This lesson offers a great opportunity for talking about resurrection, eternal life, what it is, what it is not and what can and cannot be said about it. Though we mainliners are reluctant to speak of resurrection other than as a metaphor of some great project or agenda, we need to shake off our 19th Century prejudices and recognize that we are living in the 21st Century. Death and resurrection are of great concern to a lot of folks who lack the conceptual tools and biblical images for contemplating the mystery of eternal life. If we remain silent, we cede this ground to the Left Behind crowd whose message is more about fear than hope