Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A, October 22, 2017
While the Jews were exiled in Babylon, the Persian emperor Cyrus planned to conquer Babylon and liberate the captives there. The Jews would be free to return to Jerusalem. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah declares that Cyrus, even though a pagan, is God's instrument.
We begin a series of readings from Saint Paul's letter to a church he and his companions had founded. He starts by reminding them that they received not just ideas from him, but from the Holy Spirit: faith, love, hope and power.
Ever careful about honor and status, enemies of Jesus try to embarrass him. Jesus cleverly wins the argument and stakes out higher ground.
The Historical Situation: While the Jews were exiled in Babylon, the Persian emperor Cyrus began defeating neighboring kingdoms and letting the defeated peoples practice their own religions. Isaiah foresaw Cyrus defeating Babylon and liberating the captives there. The Jews would be free to return to Jerusalem. So in this passage, the prophet declares that Cyrus, even though a pagan, is God's instrument, even God's "Anointed," that is, "Messiah." This was a daring thing to say, and saying so may have cost the prophet dearly. Not that Cyrus cared, but some Jews could not accept the notion. One commentator cites scholars who think this assertion led to the prophet's martyrdom.
(The book of Isaiah is a compilation of the works of at least three persons. The first, whose name we know was Isaiah, prophesied before the Exile; his words are in chapters 1-39. The anonymous prophet whom we call Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, spoke the word of God during the exile. Those oracles are gathered in chapters 40-55. These include the famous Suffering Servant poems (see above about the prophet's martyrdom), used by the later writers of our gospels to interpret the mission and sufferings of Jesus. Another anonymous prophet, whom we know as Trito-Isaiah, is responsible for chapters 56-66, about life back in Judah after the Exile.)
Proclaiming It: Read this passage aloud mindful that you are speaking in the voice of Isaiah who is speaking as the voice of God. Imagine how authoritative the prophet tried to sound, telling the conquering emperor who his Real Boss is. That demands a weighty, solemn, commanding tone.
In view of the historical situation described above, and the theological implication described below, the word "anointed" is very interesting. Pronounce this weighty title with some irony, if you can. For Isaiah is giving to a pagan the title reserved for Judah's kings, the likes of David and Solomon, indeed the title that would eventually be reserved for the Messiah (which means "anointed" in Hebrew).
The final emphasis, though, has to be on the sovereignty of God, who can make an unwitting tool of even the most powerful earthly king. Notice the repetion of "I am the LORD, there is no other," and "though you know me not." One does not trifle with this God.
A Theological Reflection: As noted above, this passage also contains a theological breakthrough, of interest to the Jews if not to Cyrus. To call this pagan "the Lord's anointed" was quite revolutionary. Like other passages from Isaiah we've read lately, it's meant to challenge Judah's parochialism and give them a more universal view of God's concern and of their place in God's plan.
The Historical Situation: In ancient times, one did not begin a letter with simple words like "Dear friends." Nor did any writer have letterhead stationery. The writer had to name himself and his audience, as if he was giving the letter a title. Only then, if he was a religious authority like Saint Paul, could he say, "grace to you and peace."
Proclaiming It: So pause after that expression and take a breath. And if you wish, title the reading "The beginning of the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians."
What was going on among the Christians in Thessalonika that led Saint Paul to write? That unfolds slowly in the selections we'll proclaim over five Sundays. From today's text, it's clear that these people worked hard at being Christians, and that Saint Paul thought that praiseworthy.
A Theological Reflection: Regular lectors might meditate on the last sentence of this reading. There was more faith, hope and charity among the Thessalonians than Paul could credit to his own preaching ("our gospel did not come to you in word alone"). The Holy Spirit was clearly at work.
When modern people hear the word of God from you, they do respond to your eloquence or the lack of it. But much more do they respond to the Spirit at work within them. The Spirit is calling them to greater faith, hope and charity. While the Spirit is doing that, you don't want to model indifference, haste and ignorance. The Spirit doesn't depend on you to get through to the listeners, but should not have to contend with your proclamation, either*.
By choosing to meet us in sacramental ways, in human liturgical gatherings, God accepts a certain "handicap" that our frail natures impose on everything we do. Your listeners need and deserve your help in disposing themselves to meet God. So your reading should have all the human qualities--clarity, drama, artistry, authority--appropriate to the occasion. And the occasion is that people have come together to hear the word of God, opening themselves to unpredictable promptings of the Spirit. That's what you are celebrating when you serve as lector.
* Or, in a way, does the Spirit depend on you? Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose philosophy was the foundation of 6 or 7 centuries of Catholic theology, said "Grace does not take away nature but brings it to perfection." I am confident to argue that Aquinas would not approve a liturgical proclamation that sounds indifferent, hasty or ignorant. Grace, he would say, does not cancel the negative that such sloppy behavior imposes on listeners. He'd demand respect for the human nature of the listeners, since that is what grace wants to perfect. When some, even ordained liturgical ministers, argue the contrary, that the human qualities of liturgical engagement don't matter, I say, "Thou shalt not put the Lord, thy God, to the test." And I remeind them of to whom Jesus was addressing when He uttered that quote.
Tomb of Cyrus the great from Achaemenid Empire located in Pasargadae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Fars Province, Iran. Photo by Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji, July 15, 2015, per Wikimedia Commons.
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated August 2, 2017