Monday, October 20, 2014

HOMILY 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle A October 19, 2014

          In today’s homily I want to draw a contrast between our first reading and our second reading. 
          But first I have to set the scene of our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  The Prophet Isaiah lived a long time ago, more than 500 years before Jesus was born.  That is a long time ago.  And in our first reading today he is talking about a Persian king named Cyrus, a/k/a Cyrus the Great, who died in the year 530 BC.  Here is what you need to know about old Cyrus to make sense out of today’s first reading:  Cyrus raised up a great kingdom in Persia, and then conquered a neighboring, older kingdom called Babylon. 
          Now Babylon should ring a bell for all of you who study the Old Testament, and I am sure all of you do.  Because a couple of generations before our man Cyrus conquered Babylon, way back in 597 BC or almost 70 years earlier, Babylon had conquered Judah the Kingdom of the Jews.  And Babylon, as was its policy when it conquered a people, took the nobles, the artisans, the scholars, all the best people back to Babylon as captives.  And for nearly 70 years the Jewish people suffered under the Babylonian captivity. 
          It was a really hard time for the Jews, and a very important time in the formation of their religion.  Some just gave up.  They believed God had given up on them, abrogated the covenant God had made with Abraham, no longer counted the Jews as God’s chosen people, and with no prince, no land, no temple, no sacrifice, the Jews had NO future.  The technical Biblical term for this is they were KAPPUT.
          But other exiles when deeper, and came to realize that in spite of all their sins and failings, and in spite of all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, God was NOT giving up on them.  God would be faithful.  Because that is what God is.
          Nobody could figure out how God would be faithful, because the Babylonian Empire was as strong as it was ruthless, but somehow God would bring His people back to their land.
          And this is where our man Cyrus comes in.  He raised up the Persian Empire which turned out to be even stronger than the old Babylonian Empire.  And Cyrus conquered the Babylonians.  They were now KAPPUT.      Then Cyrus, who as a very shrewd politician, did something interesting.  He knew ruling a vast empire would be difficult, and he would only succeed if he won over his subjects’ minds and hearts.  So what he did, which was very novel but very successful, is he allowed all the peoples the Babylonians had conquered and displaced, to return to their homelands.  And so the Jews were able to return to Judea and Jerusalem, and rebuild the temple that the Babylonians had destroyed.  Cyrus even assisted them in returning and rebuilding the temple.
          Now Cyrus did this because it was shrewd politics and served his purposes.  But the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading gives it a whole different spin. 
“Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, / whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before him, / and making kings run in his service,
opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one,
I have called you by your name, / giving you a title, though you knew me not.”
          Isaiah is saying that even though Cyrus, this pagan king, is totally unaware of it, He is an instrument of the One True God, serving God’s purposes.
          Isaiah goes on I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun
people may know that there is none besides me. 
I am the LORD, there is no other.”
          It is a remarkable vision that Isaiah has.  This pagan emperor, totally unawares, is God’s instrument and doing God’s bidding.  In other words, Cyrus never had a clue as to what he was really doing and the meaning of it. Cyrus is like a hammer or a paintbrush or a keyboard that some builder or artist uses.  Cyrus was a means to God’s ends, and totally unaware of what he was really doing, promoting salvation history.  Kind of a fascinating idea.
          Now I want you to contrast that totally clueless King Cyrus to what St. Paul says about us in today’s second reading. 
          St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians and today to us:  “We give thanks to God always for all of you,  knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen.”
          King Cyrus was chosen by God.  Isaiah even says he is God’s anointed, that is, chosen as a king.  Cyrus was chosen to do God’s will, but was clueless and unaware of what he was really doing. 
          We also are “chosen”.  The difference is, we knowWe give thanks to God always for all of you,  knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen.” 
          How were we chosen?  St. Paul states: “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power / and in the Holy Spirit / and with much conviction.”  
          Does it make a difference for us that, unlike clueless Cyrus, we know?  You bet it does.   Knowing that we have been chosen by God gives us much greater dignity, and also more responsibility.  We are not passive pawns in God’s purposes, but active co-participants.  And that makes a world of difference. 
          St. Paul says to the Thessalonians and to us:  “We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith  /   and labor of love   /  
and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,” 
          Work of faith, and labor of love, and endurance in hope are not the hallmarks of senseless tools.  These are the marks of co-participants.  These of the marks of disciples.  And that is what we are called to be.
          God today is inviting us to become co-workers in proclaiming and establishing, not some earthly kingdom of the Babylonians or of the Persians or of Caesar and the Romans, not even of the United States, but rather God’s Kingdom.  First and foremost we do this in our own hearts.  To do that we must know and cooperate, doing the “work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.”   

          Know who you are and what you are about.  

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