The Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2017 – Cycle A
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96; Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21
Have you ever considered that the story of humanity can be interpreted as the story of the rise and fall of nations and empires?
Consider out present world scene as we watch the political and economic rise of China, the seeming retreat of the United States from international participation in the world, while Vladimir Putin struggles to reestablish the Soviet Union under the guise of Holy Mother Russia.
Consider the massive movements of people around the world. Muslim Rohingya refugees forced, if not being annihilated, from Buddhist Myanmar. The world’s closing of doors to Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The great strain on resources from Greece through Germany and into Scandinavia due to the refugee crisis. The “brain drain” from Greece, Poland, Ireland, and Spain to other parts of Europe and the world. The increasing cracks in the facade of the European Union with the Brexit vote, the rise of extreme nationalism and the Catalonian and Scottish independence movements.
Who would have thought we would ever again be talking about the possibility of nuclear war? The never ending tragic wars of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The political unrest in some African countries trying to balance democracy with deep tribal roots and cultural structures.
Add to that, instantaneous world communication, the destruction caused by extreme weather patterns, truth being sacrificed on the altar of expediency, and the corruption found in many governments and institutions.
Have you ever asked, where is God in all this? Does God have anything to do with these political movements? Maybe the fundamental question is, does God care or are we on our own?
Deism was an intellectual movement of the Enlightenment. Deists believe in the existence of a supreme being, but of a creator who does not intervene in the universe or interact with humanity. This is the God of, “in God we trust” on our money. For deists, we are on our own. But for Jews and Christians, we believe in a God, the God of Israel, who moves in and out of history; who respects but also uses human decisions and actions for the sake of his sons and daughters. Our God does care.
Politics and religion may not mix comfortably for many people at a dinner party but blend quite well for the ancient prophets of Israel who knew a God who cared enough to dress Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the garden and offer a promise of a Saviour, who called Abraham and Sarah and used their infertility to bring forth a numerous people, who used the deceit of Jacob and his mother to steal a birthright from his brother, who spoke and called from a burning and unconsumed bush to Moses who had just murdered an Egyptian to use him to free his people from slavery and then use the stubbornness of Pharaoh of Egypt to bring an empire to its knees.
Small, insignificant Israel often collided with empires rising and falling throughout her history. The rise of the Assyrian Empire that swallowed up the northern Kingdom followed by its demise with the rise of the Babylonian Empire. Babylon destroyed the southern Kingdom of Judah and imposed a 70 year exile that ended when Cyrus of Persia came to power. The prophet Isaiah saw Babylon as being used by God to punish his sinful people. Now the hand of God is using Cyrus, who does not know or worship the God of Israel, as the instrument to allow Israel to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the nation.
Does God micromanage history? If God does move within human history, is that manipulation? What happens to our free will?
Isaiah clearly believed that God used Cyrus for divine ends. We need to ask, is God using a contemporary Cyrus, possibly a contemporary enemy today as he did then? Remember our God has a habit of using people to help us whom we would not have anticipated and we would do well not to make hasty assumptions and judgements. If God is on the move in history today through our present political upheavals, for what purpose? What might God be doing for his people?
Saint Augustine living on the brink of the collapse of the Roman Empire warned his 5th century Christians not to identify any nation with the heavenly City of God. This idea, touted by some Christians today, of a people being a “Christian nation” or having a claim to being chosen or exceptional in God’s sight was, for Augustine, a form of idolatry.
Like Isaiah, we are called to the difficult task of discerning “the signs of our times”. Jesus said, “You know how to interpret the weather; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” [See Luke 12:54-56] Following the teaching of Jesus, The Second Vatican Council stated the Church has a duty to scrutinize the signs of the time and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. [See Gaudium et spes #4]
What is happening in human history in our times? What is God’s role? How might God be using for a good purpose the movement of peoples, the rise and fall of nations, or the violence of our times? I can assure you, contrary to the beliefs of some Christians, it is not the coming of the end of the world. That is not a Catholic understanding of theology. We pray and look forward to the Second Coming of Christ not a cataclysmic Star Wars type end of the world. The Eucharistic Prayer today gives us a path to understanding as we pray: “Grant that all the people of the Church, looking into the signs of the times by the light of faith, may constantly devote themselves to the service of the Gospel. Keep attentive to the needs of all people…” [Eucharistic Prayer for Use in Mases for Various Needs III] It is in the lives of the needy people we service that we will come to discern and understand God’s presence and action in the world, even to the movements of peoples and nations, and the rise and fall of empires.
Thus the question, what is happening in human history in our times, may be posed not only to the world scene but our family and personal lives as well. A question that cannot be avoided except at our own peril of missing God present and moving in our lives.