29th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Answering God’s Call

Tribute to Caesar, Bartolomeo Manfredi, 1610-1620, Uffizi Gallery

Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
October 18, 2020

This week, we continue reading the book of Isaiah, but we will move from Jerusalem around 700 BC to Babylon around 530 BC and the second person to use that name. Like his namesake, he believes in the sovereignty of the LORD, that the LORD works in history, and that Jews have a vocation to the world. He will however bring a distinct perspective and greater subtlety to his analysis and prophecy.

Our reading this week begins with Isaiah 25:1. but the section begins a few paragraphs before with Isaiah 44:24.

Thus says the LORD, your redeemer,  
who formed you from the womb: 
I am the LORD, who made all things, 
who alone stretched out the heavens; 
when I spread out the earth, who was with me? 

(Is 44:24)

He is addressing the leaders of the Jews who were brought to Babylon a generation before as captives. Babylon is all they know and some of them had done quite well there. Their faith in the LORD has not vanished but the temptations to wider apostasy or lukewarmness are powerful. The LORD powerfully reminds them that they are not in captivity because the gods of the Babylonians were stronger than Him but that He was purging them of their sins. This is exile, not extermination.

Isaiah is writing after Babylon had been overthrown by the Assyrians under King Cyrus. The Assyrian colonial policy was copied by the British Empire in using the “Native Elites” to maintain order. Thus, Cyrus had offered his new Jewish subjects in Babylon itself the opportunity to return to Jerusalem and act as his agents. He promised as well that he would rebuild the temple and let them return to their worship of the LORD. Cyrus no doubt thought this good policy, but Isaiah is clear that he is fulfilling the LORD’S conscious desire:

I say of Cyrus: My shepherd, 
who fulfills my every wish; 
He shall say of Jerusalem, “Let her be rebuilt,”  
and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” 

(Is 44:28)

Note how Isaiah clearly states that Cyrus is his shepherd and is doing his will. This is extraordinary but the next line is astounding:

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus

(Is 45:1)

Anointed means Messiah or Christ. We usually read this expression as Savior. Here we should restrict it to righteous king. Cyrus is doing the will of the LORD and is given the highest title in the Jewish world as the recognition of this.

The LORD is so powerful that Cyrus is obeying him without even knowing it:

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.

(Is 45:4)

Look indeed however at the reason: “For the sake of Jacob my servant.” The Jews are the chosen people but as Isaiah of Jerusalem recognized (Isaiah 2:2) and as Isaiah of Babylon already proclaimed more strongly (Isaiah 42:6), it is for the eventual good of all the nations.

This passage however is written with some irony. Cyrus is following the Lord “though you knew me not” but have the Jews? Reading Isaiah and even more directly Ezra and Nehemiah we can see that “recruitment” for the reestablishment of Jerusalem was not going well. I mentioned before some of the Jews had done very well in Babylon and would continue to do so. The “Babylonian Talmud” the great commentary on the Jewish law was written over 1,000 years after this by members of the Jewish community which still thrived there.

Cyrus is doing his job, what about the Jews themselves? Cyrus is not reading this the Jews are. It is they who need to be reminded that they know the LORD who has entered history to form them:

so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun
men may know that there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, there is no other.

(Is 45:6)

The LORD has arranged history so that Jews can be successful in their vocation, but they must also respond to the call. So, must we but before looking at what this means we need to look at how Cyrus has been misunderstood throughout the years.

Cyrus has been anointed by God. Although he remains a pagan and unaware of his anointing, He is perhaps not the only pagan leader who has done the work of the LORD but what does that mean?

Isaiah of Jerusalem spoke of Assyria as well:

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger— 
the club in their hands is my fury! 
Against a godless nation I send him, 
and against the people of my wrath I command him, 
to take spoil and seize plunder, 
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. 

(Is 10:5–6)

Here the Assyrians are being used to chastise the Jews, but the king is not named or called Shephard or Anointed. Cyrus is privileged because he is building up Jerusalem not tearing it down. Isaiah might well say that he is preparing a place on Mt. Zion for his people to rest.

We need to be careful when we hear politicians and despots referred to, usually by evangelicals, as “another Cyrus” or fulfilling the “role of Cyrus”. They usually mean someone who although limited and perhaps corrupt does what they think is good. That insults both God and Cyrus.

Non-Christians and even morally dubious people can fulfill the LORD’S will, but we know that by what is accomplished. We have seen that Cyrus was essential in building up Jerusalem. Anyone who we might consider a modern-day Cyrus must build up the Kingdom of God. An anointed one however much he or she may not be immediately aware of it must bring harmony to society and with the environment to be worthy of the name. It is hard to know when the LORD is working with us, his ways and his personnel are so varied, but the finished product is unmistakable: a stronger and closer community.

Reestablishing St. Charles will not be as hard as rebuilding Jerusalem, but it will require that we answer the call of the one God for there is no other.