Sunday the Twenty-ninth

I call upon You, God, for You will answer me; bend Your ear and hear my prayer. Guard me as the pupil of Your eye; hide me in the shade of Your wings (Psalm 16:6, 8).

Give the Lord glory and honor (Psalm 96).

“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 45:1. 4-5).”

The Lord speaks and addresses him by name. He is the Lord’s “anointed (Hebrew, מָשִׁיחַ mashiach, this is the same root for Messiah).” The Lord grasps his “right hand.” He conquers. He strikes fear among leaders of nations. He is “chosen.” He is given a mission that all people may know “I am the Lord and there is no other.” Sound familiar? Perhaps it is Isaiah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Wrong. Perhaps it is one of the kings of Israel? Wrong again! He is Cyrus, the pagan, gentile king of Persia! This point becomes even more interesting as we take a crash-course in a particular period of Israel’s history.

The historical context of the Isaian proclamation this Sunday is the era of the Babylonian Captivity, second only to the Exodus as a pivotal event in Israel’s life as the Chosen People. The Babylonians conquered Israel in 587 BC (the Northern Kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians about 134 years earlier, 721 BC). Despite repeated warnings from the prophets to return to living the Covenant faithfully and devoutly, many in Israel preferred a life of pleasure and instant gratification. Covenant living was too hard and certainly inconvenient. Such a way of living was also an embarrassment when it came to wanting to be like everyone else. Israel once again ‘forgot’ that she was different: she was set-apart (Hebrew, qadosh which eventually is translated “holy” in English) but wanting to be like her neighbors, Israel forsook monotheism and its radical demands of living. Yes, God is One – AND – monotheism requires that this oneness of life be demonstrated in how one as an individual and as a community lives. Morally weakened, Israel had no power born of a disciplined, covenant way of living to battle an enemy. Not only did Jerusalem fall to the Babylonians, but the glorious Temple of Solomon lie in ruins. The movers-and-shakers of society were rounded up and marched back to Babylon to be assimilated into a new culture. The elderly, sick, criminals, women and children were left behind in Jerusalem. As the Babylonian conquers returned home, they gave Jerusalem and her inhabitants one last gift: salted water supplies and fields. Those who were left behind died from dehydration and starvation.

One can only imagine the state of mind that gripped the Israelites living in captivity. It began to dawn on them gradually that the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem was their own sinfulness and lack of attentiveness to the demands of Covenant living. But it was now impossible to atone for those sins. Even if they could get back to Jerusalem there was no Temple within which to offer a fitting sacrifice. To say that Israel was depressed was certainly an understatement. They needed an infusion of hope and that was the mission God entrusted to Isaiah (see chapter 40).

One can appreciate Israel’s reticence to immediately embrace Isaiah’s hope-filled words. They seemed too good to be true, and human nature knows that if something is that good, chances are it will backfire on you. Israel could also point to obstacles: mountains, valleys and rugged terrain. Isaiah proclaimed boldly that the obstacles would be transformed (not destroyed) by the hand of God. Practically speaking, people wondered how they would be able to leave from under the Babylonian rule; they were, after all, prisoners of war. That changed in 539/538 BC when Cyrus (King of Persia), known in history as “the Great,” conquered Babylon. Unlike many leaders before him, Cyrus believed it made good political sense to permit people to hold onto their culture, their way of life and even their religious beliefs and practices. So long as people paid their taxes and kept the peace, the Persian government was happy. Cyrus believed that if people could keep their customs, such would reduce civil unrest and make the task of managing an empire far easier than imposing a particular culture or exiling whole groups of people to foreign lands. With Cyrus as sole ruler, Israel travelled home and began to rebuild the temple.

On one level, this appears as a ‘happily ever after story’ since everything works out in the end. Yet within the context of Isaiah, there is much about Cyrus and his work that is important for believers of any age – ours certainly included – to take to heart for the good of the salvation of all. The first point I speak to concerns the individual believer and her/his faith community. There is the temptation for people of religious traditions, especially those with a substantial human history to live by the 11th commandment: ‘we’ve always done it this way. God can’t certainly act in any other way.’ Intellectually we know that such a commandment never made it to the list but our ways of thinking, speaking and acting reveal otherwise. Historically, we can look back and marvel at the hand of God and give thanks for great thinkers and leaders such as Cyrus. Yet at the time, I do not know how many in Israel’s camp would have tolerated the good talk about Cyrus. He was a pagan, a gentile and not numbered among the Chosen People as Israel understood it at that time. For many I am sure they considered Isaiah a heretic when he delivered the prophetic word calling Cyrus an anointed, a chosen and one entrusted with a Divine mission. Hindsight is 20-20 and when we’re in the thick of things, it is hard to think outside the box. When life as we know it is crashing in all around us, we naturally revert to the familiar and fight change at all costs. Yet the covenant-person and covenant-community must be properly attentive and discern the will of God in the present time. Thankfully in this setting, Israel was docile and pliable enough to discern the movement of God in their lives and in the world. It resulted in a joyous return home and the rebuilding of a cherished culture and life in what would be the iconic Second Temple.

The second point I speak to from this biblical episode concerns civil authority. He may never know Cyrus’ motivation for permitting conquered cultures to retain their ways of living and beliefs so long as the common good flourished. Whether Cyrus was noble or utilitarian in governing in such a way, history has demonstrated that nations lived in relative peace and cultures matured. Civil authority must exercise its power with attentiveness and vigilance to the common good that enables legitimate diversity within society to mature. As we are witnessing in our present age, this is a most delicate issue and wrought with all sorts of implications, known and unknown, for our future and the future of generations to come. Cyrus the Great ruled with authority and wisdom that benefitted an expansive land filled with much diversity. May our leaders do as well in our time and may we continue to pray for them by name.

Almighty and ever-living God,
our source of power and inspiration,
give us strength and joy
in serving You as followers of Christ,
Who lives and reigns with You and
the Holy Spirit, One God for ever and ever. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment