Sunday, May 31, 2009

10-19-2008: 29th Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 45:1,4-6/Psalm 96/Thessalonians 1:1-5/Matthew 22:15-21
“I am the Lord, there is no other.” So says God to Cyrus the Persian in today’s first reading. Whether Cyrus thought this a good thing or not, we do not know. Matter of fact, whether we should consider this revelation a relief or a disappointment is itself hard to tell.

One of the downsides to a strict monotheism is the fact that ardent adherers don’t have recourse to some other deity more sympathetic to their particular plight. Pagan polytheists of old could at least seek the help of an Aphrodite when Zeus seemed contemptuous of their pleas. And, although historical evidence is lacking, we might assume Cyrus was himself a Zoroastrian (the ancient religion of Persia). Historians attribute Zoroastrianism’s practice of religious tolerance as a reason for Cyrus’ benevolent gesture toward the Jews of his day – returning them to their homeland and permitting them to rebuild the Temple. We can infer, however, from Isaiah’s insistence that the Jewish God was behind Cyrus’ actions, that Isaiah feared grateful Jews might embrace the religion of such a benevolent infidel. Certain passages of the Hebrew Scriptures even designate Cyrus as Messiah. (In contrast to Cyrus’ practice of tolerance, his modern successor, Achmedinijad, a strict Muslim monotheist, wants to do everything possible to reverse the benevolent actions of his ancient predecessor by destroying Israel and scatter the Jews into a permanent Diaspora – no Messiah he.)

Catholicism, although claiming a strict monotheism, in reality is open to the manifestation of the divine presence through many venues. One of the great arguments evangelical Protestants pose against Catholics is our invocation of the saints and of Mary in particular. Salvation, for them, rests on acknowledging Jesus, and only Jesus, as our guide through this vale of tears on our way to heaven. But which Jesus one acknowledges is a highly speculative affair. The qualities and attributes we ascribe to the historical Jesus usually reflect our contemporary needs and desires. Besides, how many of us really still believe in the God presented in the Old Testament who, at times, seems so capricious and vengeful we have no choice but to run to the comforting embrace of Mary, Mother of Mercy.

In the end our adherence to the doctrines of a particular religion seems not as important as the actions we perform and the merciful and compassionate deeds we seek to accomplish in this life. Cyrus probably continued to worship Ahura Mazda and not the God of the Jews. So what! He did what was right and just, and didn’t even object when Isaiah ascribed his goodness to a God whose religion he didn’t follow.

And Jesus’ very clever rejoinder to the Pharisees in today’s gospel, about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, can be seen as yet another exercise of pragmatic religious toleration amid the rigid strictures of a monotheistic faith. A lesson hopefully not lost on us as we approach the upcoming elections. Bishops tell us we should vote according to a conscience formed by Catholic moral principles; but the gospel seems to imply that principles need at times bend to practicality and pragmatism if God is ultimately to be served well. Jesus’ clever response proves that giving Caesar what belongs to him doesn’t mean we cannot give God his due – in due time, though, and often by a rather circuitous route; proving the old adage that God writes straight with crooked lines. Lines that will always end up crooked, no matter how straight we intended them to be.

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