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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 29 - Proper 24 - Year A
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Alt - Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:2-9, 10-13

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 29 - Proper 24 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]


EXODUS 33:12-23              Theophanies - conversations between God and 
Israel's religious heroes like Moses or one of the prophets - were 
reported as if they were everyday conversations.  These were most probably 
deep religious experiences when special revelations about the special 
character of God came to a great spiritual leader.  This is one of those 
experiences.  Totally despairing of his people because of their worship of 
an idol - a golden calf representing fertility - Moses was given a new set 
of stones bearing God's commandments.  A new covenant was struck between 
God and Israel.  This theophany revealed to Moses that God would never 
desert him, though God would always be invisible.


PSALM 99                     Recalling some of Israel's greatest spiritual 
leaders, the psalmist calls the people to praise God for the many ways in 
which God has blessed them.  It is one of several psalms thought to have 
been used to enthrone God as Israel's sovereign at the beginning of a new 
year.  


ISAIAH 45:1-7                (Alternate) Would any prophet today dare call 
a modern dictator whose hands were drenched with blood an agent of God? 
Sadam Hussein?  Pol Pot?  Adolf Hitler?  In effect that is what the 
prophet of Israel's exile in Babylon did say about the Persian emperor 
Cyrus only recently had overwhelmed the Babylonian Empire?  Now Cyrus was 
a about to send the Israelite exiles home.  This poetic declaration 
presents one of the best arguments that God is the only God who holds 
absolute sovereignty over human history.


PSALM 96:1-9,(10-13)         (Alternate) This psalm may well have been 
sung at the celebration of the New Year when God was figuratively 
enthroned as Israel's only monarch.


1 THESSALONIANS 1:1-10       The idea that Jesus would be returning very 
soon was common in the early decades of the church's history.  Paul's 
letters to the Thessalonians deal with this expectation as well as some 
particular local issues.  In this opening salutation, he praises these 
early converts for receiving him and their new faith so readily.  
Thessalonica was an important the capital of the Roman colony of Macedonia 
in northern Greece.  


MATTHEW 22:15-22             Jesus' opponents attempt to entrap him with a 
trick question about paying taxes.  In responding Jesus does not separate 
material things from spiritual values as some have presumed.  He believed 
that God is sovereign over all aspects of human life.   We can extrapolate
from his answer a clear definition of Christian stewardship: God has first 
call on all our assets.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

EXODUS 33:12-23   In many respects this is a most unusual if not 
unbelievable reading.  It is written as a conversation between Yahweh and 
Moses.  The preceding part of the chapter describes the setting.  The 
Israelites had recovered from their apostasy in worshiping a golden calf 
(32:1-25).  At Yahweh's direction, Moses was about to lead them forward 
toward the Promised Land.  The tabernacle, or tent designed for meeting 
with Yahweh, had been pitched outside the Israelite encampment and there 
Moses communed with Yahweh face to face (33:7-11).  But Moses was not yet 
completely certain that the Israelites accepted his leadership.  Then too, 
Moses learned that Yahweh would not go with them, having been promised an 
angel instead to lead the Israelites forward into hostile territory 
(33:2).  So he asked for further help so that the people would believe 
that Yahweh was indeed guiding them (vss 13-16).  Was this really a matter 
of "Let's make a deal?"  Actually, the passage does have an element of 
covenant-making about it.

Before the covenant with its promises could be renewed, however, a 
theophany had to occur.  This reading tells of that experience.  Yahweh 
not only speaks to Moses as before, but at Moses' request reveals Yahweh's 
glory in hindsight.  This revelation is the point of the whole chapter and 
serves as a prelude to the next where a second set of tablets is created 
symbolizing the renewal of the covenant.

We find an important development in Hebrew religious thought in this 
passage.  As anthropomorphic as the conversation between Yahweh and Moses 
may be, the narrative also points out that it is Yahweh's character, not 
Yahweh's whole being, which is revealed.  This is the meaning of vss 19-20 
about Yahweh's goodness, grace and mercy, but not Yahweh's face being 
seen.  

No one can behold or contemplate the full essence of divinity except as 
God chooses to make this known (vss 20-23).  We can receive divine mercy 
and learn the divine will, but the whole of the mystery we call God 
remains forever hidden from us.

Two other anecdotal asides:  The early Church Fathers used Moses hiding 
from the full glory of Yahweh in a cleft of the rock as a symbol of the 
Incarnation.  This made it possible for humans to be both intelligible 
about God to the fullest extent possible and yet practical in living by 
that knowledge because God had come in Jesus, human like us.  This could 
have been an effort to counter the Gnostic heresy in the 2nd century.  
Augustus Toplady's 18th century hymn, *Rock of Ages*, also found its 
scriptural source in the cleft rock in which Moses was to hide.


PSALM 99   Recalling some of Israel's greatest spiritual leaders, the 
psalmist calls the people to praise the Lord for the many ways in which 
the Lord has blessed them.  It is one of several psalms thought to have 
been used to enthrone God as Israel's sovereign at the beginning of a new 
year.  

This series of "enthronement psalms" in the Psalter  include Pss.  47, 93, 
96-99.  Intended for use in the temple, this psalm appears to date from 
the time of Zerubbabel, an Israelite and grandson of Jehoiachin, the last 
king of Judah who died in exile.  He had been sent by Darius the Persian 
emperor to govern in Jerusalem at the end of the 6th century BCE.  Under 
his leadership and that of Joshua, the high priest, the rebuilding of the 
temple was completed (520-515 BCE).  Hopes for the restoration of the 
Davidic monarchy rested on him, as referred to by Haggai as the "servant" 
of Yahweh (2:23) and by Zechariah as "the Branch" (3:8; 6:12).  Such hopes 
were soon to be disappointed, for he does not appear in the narrative of 
the temple's rededication (Ezra 6:16-18).  His removal because of a 
threatened rebellion gave rise to the messianic hope for another king of 
David's line who would some day rule over Israel.

This may have been a period of relative stability, although the jealousy 
of Israel's neighbours following the return of many Israelites from the 
Babylonian captivity (586-539 BCE) may not have let it last very long 
(Ezra 4:1-6).  Since the time of the Deuteronomists of Josiah's reign (ca.  
621 BCE), the temple had become the heart and soul of Israel's national 
identity as well as its sacred centre of worship.  This identity had found 
its full expression in the worship and sacrifices of the temple.  After 
the return from exile and the frustration of the dream of re-establishing 
the Davidic monarchy, the reign of Yahweh as Israel's true and only 
sovereign became all the more significant.

Psalm 99 expresses this spiritual reality in a sense of universalism 
derived from Second Isaiah (vss 1-3).  This exaltation in Yahweh's 
sovereignty over all nations is particularly meaningful in the light of 
the opposition to the rebuilding of the temple by Israel's neighbours.  
The psalmist also appeals to the prophetic and priestly traditions of 
Moses, Aaron and Samuel who worshipped Yahweh and gave the Torah to their 
descendants (vss 6-7).  He also lifts up the special character of Yahweh 
as a lover of justice (vs. 4) who is both consistent and merciful in 
judgment (vs. 8).  
	

ISAIAH 45:1-7   (Alternate) Would any prophet today dare call a modern 
dictator whose hands were drenched with blood an agent of God?  Sadam 
Hussein?  Pol Pot?  Adolf Hitler?  In effect that is what the prophet of 
Israel's exile in Babylon did say about the Persian emperor Cyrus who only 
recently had overwhelmed the Babylonian Empire?  Now Cyrus was about to 
send the Israelite exiles home.  This poetic declaration presents one of 
the best arguments that God is the only God who holds absolute sovereignty 
over human history.

It is very difficult for us to see how the sovereignty of God in the day 
to day, year to year events of our time.  But from God's point of view 
time is not measured as we measure it.  History can only be regarded as 
providential when a higher purpose can be discerned in events that occur, 
often over long periods of time.  That requires a profound faith, a faith 
like that of the prophet of Israel's exile in Babylon which had lasted for 
two generations (586-539 BCE).  Scholars believe that this cataclysmic 
event of the Persian conquest of Babylon lay behind the story of the 
Babylonian king Belshazzar seeing handwriting on the wall which Daniel 
interpreted (Dan.  5:1-31).  No scholar has yet resolved the discrepancy 
between Cyrus and Darius as the conquerors of Babylon.  

The significance of this prophetic declaration that Cyrus was "the Lord's 
anointed" who would subdue nations and open doors for Yahweh presents this 
theological  interpretation of history as clearly as any OT passage.  It 
was for Israel's sake that Cyrus had been called to a mission of conquest.  
Yahweh's purpose of carrying Israel's sacred covenant forward was to be 
fulfilled by what historians regard as the remarkably tolerant policies of 
Cyrus toward the many peoples he conquered.  Even though a non-believer in 
the eyes of the Israelites, Cyrus could still serve the divine purpose.

It would be unwise for us to transpose the prophecies of more than 2500 
years ago to the events of our time and place.  Rather, we should try to 
discern the purpose of God in what we see happening in the world around 
us.  However, the affirmation of the prophet of Israel's exile that there 
is one and only one God remains as true as ever.  It is also true that 
God's sovereignty over human history remains absolute.  The reign of God 
will come as human events move toward the fulfillment of God's loving 
purpose for all humanity, not as imperiously imposed by any single nation 
or empire, no matter how powerful.


PSALM 96:1-9,(10-13)   (Alternate)  This psalm may well have been sung at 
the celebration of the New Year when God was figuratively enthroned as 
Israel's only sovereign.  This ceremony formed the central part of the 
annual festival.  

Three separate motifs (vss 1-6; 7-9; 10-13) have caused some scholars to 
wonder if the psalm is a composite of three different poems.  The first 
part joyfully celebrates Yahweh as the one God for all nations, Creator of 
the universe, whose glorious works can be witnessed before all peoples.  
The second part summons all people to worship God for who God is and for 
what God has done.  Finally, at the high point of the enthronement, an 
exultant cry goes up from the assembled congregation acclaiming Yahweh as 
reigning over all creation in justice, righteousness and truth.

In ancient times when the monarchs of great powers like Egypt, Assyria, 
Babylonia and Persia successively exerted ruthless domination over Israel 
and its many small neighbouring countries, people had a fairly clear 
understanding of what human sovereignty meant.  Yet the faith history of 
Israel had revealed to the Israelites an even greater sovereignty 
possessed and exercised by Yahweh, their God.  The mighty acts of Yahweh 
had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (ca.  13th century BCE).  It 
had led these wilfully independent tribes to an uneasy coalition under 
their own monarchs, Saul, David and Solomon (11th-10th centuries BCE).  
Their subsequent division into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, and their 
continual flouting of their ancient covenant with Yahweh had led 
ultimately to their subjugation first by Assyrians (8th century BCE) and 
then by the Babylonians (6th century BCE).  After two generations in exile 
in Babylon, the leaders of the nation had returned home as vassals of yet 
another imperial power, the Persians (539-330 BCE).  

Yet we must ask how the Jews perceived the divine sovereignty that shaped 
their history over the millennium or more which the OT describes.  The 
theological concept of Yahweh as their original king probably developed 
over a considerable period of time influenced, no doubt, by other 
contemporary Middle Eastern cultures.  It seems to have come to its 
logical conclusion in recognizing the covenant as a royal covenant with 
Yahweh to whom Israel pledged loyalty in a covenantal ceremony (Josh.  
24).  Human kingship derived from divine authority.  The king's role was 
that of a vassal of Yahweh.  The coronation of a king reflected the 
ceremony which this psalm epitomizes.  The monarch was no more and 
certainly no less than Yahweh's human representative.  Both were equally 
to be feared and obeyed, but as vice-regent the king was never worshipped 
as in other cultures.  The significant element of Israel's understanding 
of divine sovereignty appears to have rested on their belief in Yahweh as 
creator of both nature and humanity, and as the one whose revealed 
covenant determines all religious and societal relationships.  From this 
biblical interpretation comes our Christian concept of God as Creator, 
Sustainer and Redeemer of all.  


1 THESSALONIANS 1:1-10   The idea that Jesus would be returning very soon 
was common in the early decades of the church's history.  Paul's letters 
to the Thessalonians dealt with this expectation as well as some 
particular local issues.  In this opening salutation, he praised these 
early converts for receiving him and their new faith so readily.  He 
placed special emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit among them.

Christians concerned about the distinctions seeming to be drawn today 
between "spirituality" and "Christianity" need only refer to the NT and 
the letters of Paul in particular.  For Paul there could be no faith, no 
conversion, no continuing in the Christian way while waiting for Christ's 
return without the presence and power of the Spirit.  This had resulted in 
his description of the Thessalonians as prime examples of faithfulness by 
Christian communities elsewhere (vss.7-8).

Paul began his salutation with prayers for his friends in Thessalonika, 
one of the chief ports and capital city of Macedonia.  It had been among 
the first places where Paul preached in Europe.  His ministry there lasted 
for a very few weeks, centred in the synagogue.  As often as not, the 
mission ended in turmoil caused by Jews who rejected his message (Acts 
17:1-9).  Some Jews, "a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of 
the leading women" were persuaded.  But this caused jealousy among other 
Jews who incited a riot.  After only three weeks (Acts 17:2), Paul and his 
companions had to flee.  Their work had been remarkably successful, 
however, as this letter indicates.

In typical fashion, Paul credited this success to the active grace of God 
working spiritually in the lives of his converts (vss.4-5).  This had 
ethical implications despite the persecution they had suffered (vs. 6) and 
their moral example had been heralded among other communities in 
Macedonia, Achaia and beyond (vs.7-8).  This effect had been marked by two 
main aspects of their subsequent lifestyle: they had ceased worshipping 
idols, presumably the idol of Caesar as chief among them; and they 
worshipped the "living and true God" as they waited for Christ's return 
and the judgment he would bring (vss 9-10).	

This passage represents a remarkable definition of what it means to live 
as Christians in a world of false beliefs and total unbelief.


MATTHEW 22:15-22   Jesus' opponents attempt to entrap him with a trick 
question about paying taxes.  In responding Jesus does not separate 
material things from spiritual values as some have presumed.  He believed 
that God is sovereign over all aspects of human life.  

All four gospels reflect extensively the efforts of Jesus' opponents to 
entrap him in spurious arguments.  John did this throughout his narrative 
whereas the other three focus on such attempts as a prelude to their 
Passion narratives.  This particular confrontation dealt with the 
relationship between the religious and the secular authorities.  In making 
an offering in or paying required tithes to the temple, only the official 
coin of the Hebrew tradition, the shekel, could be used.  Romans rented 
out tax collecting to the highest bidders who accepted whatever currency 
was available.  In almost all Roman provinces except Judea, such coinage 
bore the image of Caesar's head.  This, of course, was anathema to Jews; 
hence the existence of money changers at the entrance to the temple.  
Archeologists have located a treasure trove of coins from all over the 
Roman Empire in just such a location.

Is this an argument for separating the religious from the secular? 
Probably not.  More likely is the possibility that Jesus used this 
argument in this particular instance because it made a quick retort to 
what was an obvious attempt to trap him into saying something either 
blasphemous or treasonous.  Aware of what his opponents were about, he 
tossed off a saying which has been extensively used and misused in similar 
debates ever since.  The sovereignty of God which Jesus came to declare is 
indivisible.  Hence the church has all authority to preach and to teach 
that the reign of divine love extends to all aspects and all relationships 
of human life.  This includes global economics, national and international 
politics, as well as personal and public, individual and corporate ethical 
behaviour.  

We can extrapolate from his answer a definition of Christian stewardship: 
God has first call on all our assets.  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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