Sunday, October 16, 2011

State Secrets

State Secrets

© 2011, Robert J. Elder

October 16, 2011

Isaiah 45:1-7

Matthew 22:15-22

Senator Eugene McCarthy once made a rather cynical comment about his involvement in political wars over the years: “Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.” It’s a rather jaded point of view, one I’m not sure we should accept at face value. After all, politics are important. People’s lives depend upon political decisions made every day, and sometimes people can be hurt terribly, or made wealthy overnight by a simple whisk of the legislative pen.

Twentieth century filmmaker Boris Marshalov[1] once observed, “Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens – and then everybody disagrees.” Remember the story of the little boy who found his grandfather watching a political speech on television one day, and asked him, “What is he talking about, Grandpa?” To which his grandfather replied, “I don’t know, he doesn’t say.” Yet in spite of our inclination to scoff at politics and politicians – which is something of a national pastime – the Bible takes another point of view.

There is a key element in today’s reading from Isaiah’s prophecy: God’s use of human – political – means to accomplish his purposes. Now that thought, of itself, is hardly new, although some of us may be moved either to agree or disagree with it. Yet right or wrong, some people claim to have seen God’s will at work in the political arena for centuries. That view certainly isn’t abating in our time in which preachers appear in the political section as well as the religion section of news magazines.

We would do well to remember that when we begin talking about God’s use of human, political means to accomplish his purposes, we need to be awfully careful. War and civil strife are ugly enough, but probably no war is uglier than a religious war with the special kind of hatred that it can inspire: Sunni Muslims blowing up Shiite Muslims in the Middle East, a history of Protestants battling Catholics, these serve as just two reminders of that truth. Through history, the declaration that God has singled out certain political leaders for his work has been a reckless claim at best, lethal at worst. Governmental leaders with particularly ugly policies have often identified God’s will with their own political ends.

Allowing for that, one feature separates Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Persian king Cyrus from all the political claims people have made on behalf of God throughout history. It is the claim that Cyrus – non-Jew, non-Palestinian, even non-Arab – Cyrus was God’s chosen servant, even though he was unaware of it. Cyrus did not make any claim to a special calling from the God of the Jews. Isaiah went to great pains to point that out when in his prophecy God speaks to Cyrus, saying:

“I appoint you to help my servant Israel, the people I have chosen. I have given you great honor, although you do not know me.” (v.4)

Twice, in the space of two verses, God declared he had chosen Cyrus for his special assignment, although Cyrus did not know God. Cyrus is described as God’s ‘messiah’ in the Old Testament sense – that is, the anointed one. This is a startling development, since obviously, such a description of an anointed king had, for all the previous history of the Jews, been reserved exclusively for their own kings. We can read where Saul was anointed, David was anointed, Solomon, Ahab, and all the rest. But here a foreign king received a title previously reserved exclusively for the kings of Israel and Judah. This sets the Cyrus oracle apart from any claims of contemporary political figures that they represent the will of God. Cyrus was unaware of that aspect of his role, and never claimed it for himself.

In the prophet’s mind, the formula seemed to work something like this:

[1] Cyrus exists for the sake of Israel, the people of God. That is, he

was going to be the one to bring about their freedom.


[2] Israel exists for the sake of the nations:

I do this so that everyone from one end of the world to the other

may know that I am the Lord... “ (v. 6)

We may add that the Church in our time – inasmuch as it lives up to its calling to be the ‘new Israel’ – also is called to exist for the sake of the nations. God is not unconcerned with the fate of nations, with the political foibles of humanity.

What we see in Isaiah is a whole new way to view a political servant’s ‘chosenness.’ Where all the other pretenders to the throne of grace have claimed for themselves that they are God’s chosen, here we have a radical Biblical doctrine that God chooses whom God needs, regardless whether they are even aware of it, regardless whether they may have passed kingdom entrance exams. Cyrus never claimed for himself the title of “Yahweh’s anointed”. He probably would have laughed at the thought that such a tiny, insignificant group of people as the exiled Jews would have thought of him in those terms. But that would not, in Isaiah’s mind, have made him any less chosen.

Jesus taught that where love is, God is. Similarly, Isaiah might have said, “Where justice is, there God is.” Cyrus was one of the most enlightened rulers the world has ever known, certainly he was one of the most benevolent conquerors. He did not carry conquered peoples off into exile, he did not burn their crops and sow their fields with salt. Instead, he returned exiled peoples to their homelands, allowed conquered peoples to remain in their own country, and is said to have captured overripe Babylon without a struggle. He cast himself in the role not of swaggering enslaver, but of liberator. No wonder he is so well-remembered by ancient historians. The Old Testament writers had ample reason to view him in a kindly light, since he allowed the return of the Jews to their homeland. But they went a step further, calling him the Lord’s anointed. Why?

I think it is because they realized that the God of Israel was much more than a national deity. If the Lord was any God at all, he must be a God of all the world, and his interest in the affairs of humanity must extend to all the people of the earth. Any person who served to liberate people from repression, to free people from tyranny, could be an agent of their God, whether aware of it or not. The old joke in the countries under former communist domination used to be that in Western democracies with capitalist economic systems, domination of people by people prevails, while under socialism it is the other way around. A political figure, called by God, would be a leader that set at liberty those who are oppressed by any system.

If it was a startling revelation to the Jews to realize that their Lord could use a foreigner as an agent of his purposes for history, it might be startling for us. It is possible that God is freeing people by agencies other than the CIA? It is possible that people in China are more or less content under their present rulers, regardless of our opinions of them, and that to the degree that the people are more free now than they were a few decades ago, that government may have served in recent times as an agent of God, since where justice is, there God is?

All this is to say that the God who loves each and every one of us from the moment we are conceived to the day we die will necessarily be concerned about the way we organize our political lives together. The God who is Father to Jesus Christ could not be any other way. God’s concern for justice necessitates an intimate interest in our affairs of state.

Still, the gospel message for today reminds us that our ultimate loyalty lies elsewhere than with our political loyalties, important as those may be. When Jesus said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he was bound to have offended the Pharisees whom Matthew saw as the devout, self-righteous, and self-appointed keepers of the purity of the religious house of Israel, who were very much opposed to the rule and taxation of Caesar. When he said, “... and render to God the things that are God’s,” he just as surely offended the operatives of King Herod, the sold-out, Uncle Tom collaborators who were perfectly happy to see heavy taxes levied on the Jews, since they got a cut of what was taken.

We may know that God’s will for the world can be aided or frustrated by our political process. We may know that God can use the most unlikely of agents to help in the establishment of his will. But above all, no matter who the king Cyrus or King Herod of our time turns out to be, we must know that such a king may only demand a portion of our loyalty, and that our ultimate loyalty must be to the King of kings, Lord of lords, the one who requires of us only that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly in his way.

[1] Known for films in the 1940s, 50s and 60s such as Sentence of Death (1948) starring James Dean, and Terror in the City (1964) starring Lee Grant.