Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Oct. 22, 2017First Reading (Track One): Exodus 33:12-23
God’s power for good amazes us, and we follow in faith. Look for variations on this theme through Sunday’s readings. In our first reading, we have skipped over a bloody and horrifying narrative since we heard about God’s anger over the golden calf: A portion of the Hebrew people were told to kill 3,000 of their brothers and sisters who had worshiped the idol. Now Moses, worried that his fractious flock might stray again, asks that God continue to lead and guide the people. God agrees, and Moses asks one thing more: To see God in God’s glory. But it would be fatal for Moses to see God’s face, so God stations Moses in a crack in a rock, protected from danger, offering only a glimpse from behind after God passes by.
First Reading (Track Two): Isaiah 45:1-7
It may seem unusual to see the First Testament offering high praise to a Gentile king, as Isaiah does here in declaring Cyrus, king of Persia, as “God’s own anointed” (using the Hebrew word “Messiah” and, in the Pentateuch, the Greek word “Christos”!) But consider the context: The people had been in exile in Babylon for 40 years, dreaming of the city and temple that they had lost. They had failed to love their neighbor and care for the weak and needy; thus they broke the covenant with God that had earned them the Promised Land. Now, led by the wise king that history knows as Cyrus the Great, the Persians have conquered Babylon, and Cyrus sent them home, showing that even the Persian king responds to God’s command.
Psalm (Track One): Psalm 99
The Psalmist reflects the Exodus verses that we hear today. We sing praise to God’s great and awesome name, celebrating God’s justice and equity. We remember that God, leading the people in a pillar of cloud, answered their prayers but also punished them for their evil deeds, and then forgave them in the end. Proclaim the greatness of the Lord, our God!
Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 96:1-13
It is likely no coincidence that the Lectionary planners chose to follow Isaiah’s praise for Cyrus the great king with a brisk reminder that God remains king among all kings, before whom the whole Earth trembles. God created and will judge all things, fairly and with equity. Heaven and earth, thunder and lightning, all the fields and all the forest will rejoice when God comes.
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
We now begin a five-week visit with 1 Thessalonians, a letter written by Paul around the year 50, the earliest document in the New Testament. It addresses a small community of formerly pagan Christians in Thessalonika, Northern Greece, who had been persecuted for giving up the state religion. Their faith, Paul said, had inspired many converts, who were now waiting for Jesus to rescue them “from the wrath that is coming” – their hope that Jesus would come back soon to judge the world and establish the kingdom of God on Earth.Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
Jesus continues fencing with the Pharisees. In today’s familiar passage they try to trap Jesus with a trick question that they hope will force him either to anger the crowds by supporting Roman taxation, or risk treason by denying the emperor’s power. But Jesus outwits them again, and even more, prompts the temple leaders to reveal that they are carrying Caesar’s graven image on the coins in their purses. Then, in advising, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” Jesus leaves open the question of how much that might amount to … and how much of our lives we should give to God. If we consider the context of this narrative and the Gospels overall, though, that small coin alone may be Caesar’s portion. Jesus clearly points our lives’ priority toward God.