29th Sunday of the Year, Modern

Lectionary 145

Today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah gives us a lot to consider. It mentions Cyrus, a 6th century B.C. Persian king, describing him as the “anointed” of the Lord. Cyrus was quite a figure in the ancient middle east, conquering many other kingdoms and ruling over an enormous area; he is also mentioned in the books of Ezra and 2 Chronicles. The Hebrew word describing Cyrus as “anointed” is meshiach, which we recognize more in its English form “messiah.” The fact that Isaiah applies the term “messiah” to a pagan king might strike us as surprising since we normally think of it in association with Christ. Isaiah thus strongly underlines God’s sovereignty in employing whichever human agents he chooses in history.

The reading goes on to indicate the uniqueness of the Lord—there is no other god—and the unstoppable nature of his messiah. In Isaiah’s day, that was Cyrus, and later, it is Jesus Christ, “Christ” also meaning “anointed.” Isaiah also emphasizes that God will send as his messiah whomever he wishes, even a pagan like Cyrus, and that the Lord is not like other earthly kings and need not conform to such expectations. God and his agents must therefore be accorded a respect and reverence which is far beyond what the people accord to their self-appointed heroes.

This picture becomes clearer in the Gospel where Jesus, the definitive messiah of Israel, is confronted with a trick question by the Pharisees and Herodians. Just as many people in Old Testament times thought they had the messiah figured out, and the pagan Cyrus had no part in their vision, so too the Pharisees and their friends thought they had the messiah “pegged,” and Jesus was not part of their picture. As a result they tried to dispose of him with an insincere question intended to indict him either in the eyes of the common people or of their Roman overlords.

The Pharisees think that there is no way out, and in strictly human terms there was not: it appeared that Jesus had to either seem to grovel before the hated Romans by consenting to the payment of the census tax, or he would be easily subject to denunciation and arrest as a dishonest tax cheat. But Jesus transcended this human logic and responded according to his own will. He showed his opponents that the messiah did not need to fit their expectations, and that it is God who governs his people, not the other way around.

We all fall into the Pharisees’ way of thinking at times, either fashioning God in our own image and likeness, or thinking that the Lord’s anointed is accountable to us: “I prayed, but did not receive what I asked for!” The truly remarkable thing is that through the incarnation God does take on our human image and likeness and makes himself accountable to us of his own free will. This is a divine condescension that proves that messianic power is truly made perfect in weakness—in contrast to the grasping for power of the Pharisees, or to Cyrus’ earthly might. This Sunday God’s messiah is presented to us in all his glory and humility in both the scriptures and the Eucharist. Let us rejoice not that Jesus outwitted the Pharisees and Herodians, but rather that he offers the true anointing of salvation to all who come to him, and invites us to share in it through the breaking of the bread.

Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.