Reading 1: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
Reading 2: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21
Many people, myself included, have considered the year 2020 to be among the most troubling and frightful times in modern history. With an unprecedented global health crisis that has already taken the lives of almost a quarter of a million people in the United States alone, a renewed reckoning with the persistence of systemic racism across America, and a presidential election cycle that has further fractured our already polarized population, to name three concurrent stressors, these days feel very much in keeping with an “end times” sensibility.
Whether by divine providence or mere coincidence, the readings this Sunday resonate particularly well with this unfortunate but widespread sensibility of despair, anxiety, and fear. There is an increasing sense of urgency conveyed in the readings selected by the Church during the final weeks of Ordinary Time. While the more apocalyptic readings will appear in November as we approach the end of the liturgical year and prepare for the start of a new one at Advent, we still get a sense of what is to come in the lectionary selections for this week.
These three readings are three snapshots of distressful times in salvation history. The first reading recounts the Babylonian captivity and the rule of a pagan monarch over the defeated people of Israel. The gospel tells of the final days of Jesus’ public ministry as those plotting to silence him ramp up their efforts to entrap him. The second reading is addressed to an early Christian community that is growing ever more anxious because Christ has yet to return as their family and friends begin dying a generation or so after the Resurrection of Jesus.
Given our current historical moment, there are at least two themes in these readings that are particularly relevant: the all-encompassing scope of the Kingdom of God, and how the Holy Spirit, always already present in the world, brings to life what is proclaimed in faith.
First, it can be tempting to view this Gospel passage through the lens of American political philosophy, and particularly with the US Constitution’s principle of the separation of “church” and “state.” However, scripture scholars make clear that this is not Jesus’s point. Jesus is not endorsing separate spheres of influence of control, the “religious” on one hand and the “secular” or “civil” on the other. His response to the Pharisees’ efforts to entrap him is a middle-of-the-road response that ensures he would not upset either the Jewish nationalists (who opposed Roman occupation) or the Herodians (who benefited from Roman control).
Jesus does something of a rhetorical “jiu-jitsu” move, in which he disarms the aggressive verbal attack and pivots everyone’s attention to something more in keeping with his preaching ministry — announcing the in-breaking of God’s Reign, which is more expansive than any earthly rule. As scripture scholar Eugene Boring notes, “The kingdom of God represented by Jesus embraces all of life.” What one “owes” to God is everything, and the pecuniary obligations one has in their region or state should not distract from seeking to follow God’s will, which centers on the common good of all.
In this tensive age of political polarization, I believe many of us can relate to Jesus’ experience of being attacked or put on the spot in hopes that he would make a political mistake or express a view that will be taken as divisive. Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, offers a corrective to the party politics that too often dominate the imaginations of many Christians. Appealing to a more fundamental principle of human social ordering, a kind of “divine politics” we might say, the pope follows Jesus’ lead in today’s gospel by emphasizing God’s Reign as the ideal for human relationships.
“Fraternity [brotherhood and sisterhood] is born not only of a climate of respect for individual liberties, or even of a certain administratively guaranteed equality. Fraternity necessarily calls for something greater, which in turn enhances freedom and equality. What happens when fraternity is not consciously cultivated, when there is a lack of political will to promote it through education in fraternity, through dialogue and through the recognition of the values of reciprocity and mutual enrichment? Liberty becomes nothing more than a condition for living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit. This shallow understanding has little to do with the richness of a liberty directed above all to love” (no. 103).
This quote challenges Christians to turn their focus toward a deeper, more Christ-like understanding of social relationships and the importance of prioritizing the common good. This arises from our commitment as Christians to proclaim the Kingdom of God not only in our words, but also with our whole lives.
Second, the Thessalonian community was growing anxious about the seeming delay in Christ’s return (“second coming”). This letter opens with Paul expressing not only greetings of gratitude and peace, but also a telling final line that appears in the lectionary selection for our second reading: “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction” (1:5). It can be easy to miss the reassurance and the theological significance of connecting the “word” (logos) proclaimed with the “power” (dynamis) and “Holy Spirit” (pneuma).
The message takes the form of assurance that the Good News proclaimed by Paul and his companions (and thereafter by the Thessalonian Christians themselves) is neither empty nor dependent on the evangelists to bring about God’s workings. As scripture scholar Earl Richard notes, “Paul underscores the dynamism of the gospel beyond the rhetoric of the proclaimers.” It is God’s Spirit (pneuma) that empowers (dynamis) both the proclamation of the gospel, but also its implementation or actualization in word and deed.
Although many of the current “signs of our times” are frightening and dire, we are encouraged this Sunday with a reminder that God’s vision for human organization and relationships is broader, deeper, and focused on the common good. This is what should motivate our outlook, and this gospel imperative should be the guiding principle in our social and political activities. All the while, if we are true to our universal baptismal vocation to live and preach the gospel, we can have faith that it is not all up to us, but that the Holy Spirit will bring to life what is we proclaim by word and deed.
Rev. Daniel P. Horan, OFM
Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality