Slyne with Hest
This passage is about salvation, but salvation that is more than simply a religious experience. It is Cyrus, the King of Persia and not an Israelite, who is named as the ‘anointed’ agent of God’s action (v.1), and his victories are actually God’s victories – though he may not realise it (v.4b). Cyrus will destroy Babylonia, which, under King Nebuchadnezzar, had destroyed Jerusalem, seized the promised land and taken its people into exile. Isaiah says that Cyrus will end the exile and restore the people to the land. But all these acts – anointing him (v.1), holding and leading him by the right hand (v.1), calling him by name (v.3), giving him a name of honour (v.4) and equipping him (v.5) – are associated with the coronation of an Israelite king. Indeed, we might translate the word ‘anointed’ as messiah (for that is what it is in Hebrew).
Isaiah sets out both a commission and a promise (v.3). This is for the sake of Israel as God’s people, not simply an ethnic grouping. And all this even though Cyrus may not fully understand (vv.4b,5b). It is a universal commission, reflecting God as Lord of all creation, not just Israel or Persia (v.6). Salvation is when disaster is overturned and potential harm is overcome.
In the Bible, often the location where the action takes place is significant. In Matthew’s account, for some time, much of the action is taking place in and around the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the place where the Davidic kings were anointed. The opening words of Matthew’s Gospel tell us, quite simply, that this is an account of ’Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David’ (1.1). It is at the Temple that Jesus’ claims are presented and examined: is he a revolutionary, or will he line up with the ruling elite? For the Jews at the time of Jesus, the Temple was all about stories and symbols of Israel and its relationship with God, God’s kingdom, slavery, exodus, wars and ultimate freedom. In this edgy context, a question about taxes is far more than a cunning trick; it is all about power and identity. It asks Jesus, ‘Who are you?’ Note how the questioners begin by trying to big up Jesus’ independence (v.16). But by asking for a coin, Jesus draws them into the answer: they are revealed as participating in the system.
Jesus’ answer is not simply a neat division of loyalties that need to be held in a delicate balance. It is possible that to ‘give to Caesar’ means ‘pay him back for what he has done’; or it could simply mean ‘pay your taxes’ – it is ambiguous. The phrase, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ may have passed into history (thanks to a somewhat notorious film of the late 1970s ), but Jesus’ response does seem to acknowledge the benefits of Roman rule – at the same time as rejecting its excesses, false deities and distorted priorities. The reality is, no one is a blank sheet. All people have expectations and are the products of the world they grow up in. The challenge, as Jesus demonstrates, is being able to respond honestly and with integrity to the competing demands the world makes on us.
The links between the lectionary readings
In these readings, there is a focus on the key players. Each asks us to look at who these people are. In Isaiah, the chief character is not obvious, insofar that as he is a Gentile king he is not evidently part of Israel as ‘the people of God’. In Matthew, we meet both Pharisees and Herodians. The former represent the religious establishment. The latter are more problematic, but could be understood to represent the Romanising establishment. Both groups would have had an interest in the payment of taxes, but for very different reasons, and with different outcomes. Into this steps Jesus. The readings pose a question: who is the one whose authority is real – Cyrus, the Pharisees, the Herodians, or Jesus? And is everything and everyone who they appear to be?
A personal prayer
I pray for my MEPs, my MP and my local councillor – may they exercise their authority with wisdom. I pray for my doctor/nurses and my pastor – may they undertake care with compassion. I pray for my family and friends – may I surround them with love. Amen.
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