1990 Oct 21 – 29th Sun Ord Time (Prison Writings)
29th Sun in Ord Time Cycle A
Is. 45: 1, 4-6
1These 1: 1-5
Matt 22: 15-21
“Thus Says The Lord to His Anointed , Cyrus.” Is. 45:1
Hold it: What does Isaiah mean Cyrus, “the anointed of the Lord?” Cyrus the Great was the 1st ruler of the Persian Empire. His armies captured Babylon in 539 B.C. effectively ending the Babylonian Empire while expanding his own. Cyrus was considered one of the enlightened absolute rulers of ancient times. He enacted a policy of allowing captive peoples to return to their homelands. This was not an entirely altruistic gesture on Cyrus’s part. The former captives were expected to be beholden to Cyrus therefore, making his Empire more easily governed. Since Israel was among the many captive people of Babylon, when Cyrus took over the city, they were allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, all conditioned on Israel’s promise of allegiance to King Cyrus and his empire.
Cyrus’s victory was good news to the Jews. Their long national tragedy was finally coming to an end. The faithful remnant had remained true to their faith throughout the 70 years of captivity. Now they were being allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. They had every reason to be excited and thankful. But why proclaim King Cyrus the anointed one of the Lord? Why bestow on this pagan Emperor the sacred title of “Messiah” – Gods King?
In relationship of the geo-political struggles confronting the Persian Empire the fate of Israel was insignificant to Cyrus. They were just one of many captive peoples who were allowed to return to their home, one more lesser smaller nation who owed its allegiance to his empire. If Cyrus ever did hear Isaiah’s exalted claims about him (which is very unlikely) he would have probably been moderately flattered, perhaps amused. His own court troubadours would have pointed out to him that Isaiah’s flattering verses were copied from Cyrus’s own well known coronation song. In it the God Marduk, the Persian empires supreme God, is given credit for Cyrus’s success. It was Marduk who “grasped the hand” of Cyrus and brought him to victory. To Cyrus, Isaiah’s praise would have been a poor imitation.
So why did Isaiah claim Cyrus, God’s anointed one the Messiah? Israel may have been an insignificant nation in the super power struggles of the day. Her freedom from Babylon and return to her homeland was an indirect result of the fall of one pagan Empire and the rise of another. From the faith perspective of Isaiah, the God of Israel who is all-powerful and all knowing, is a God who directly works within human history. God directly chose Cyrus to free his chosen people from their Babylonian captivity and return them to their homeland.
In this week’s text, Isaiah shows the extent and the audacity of his faith. World shaping events were taking place all around him, a world empire was falling apart, and another was on the rise. By any measurement of political analysis the fate of the Jewish people was inconsequential to these events. Yet Isaiah claims King Cyrus, the one human being at the center of all these geopolitical changes, was chosen by his God to free the Jewish people and allow them to return to Israel. When this came to be, it was no accidental consequence of falling and rising world empires, it was the main event. If Cyrus was the one man at the center of all these world-shaping events, then his most significant accomplishment was freeing of the Jewish people, done through the direct hand of Isaiah’s God. King Cyrus, whether he knew it or not, was working for Isaiah’s God. He was as Isaiah claimed the “anointed one of the Lord”.
If we learn anything from this weeks we learn that God is the Lord of history who works in and through human history and the people who shape it, whether they know it or not.
“Is It Lawful To Pay Tax To The Emperor Or Not?” Matt. 22/17
I couldn’t have asked for a better Gospel to end my weekly scripture reflections from jail than the account of the Pharisees and the Herodians trying to trap Jesus on whether to pay Caesar’s tax or not. This gospel story has often been used by people who disagree with civil disobedience as their proof text that we are morally bound to obey all civil laws. Yet I believe a closer reading of the text, in its proper context would lead to a completely different conclusion.
Chapter 22 of Matthew is part of the great Temple debate and final parables of Jesus ministry, right after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the temple. It takes place just before his Last Supper, which led to his passion, death and resurrection. Jesus’ opponents this week are the Pharisees and the Herodians. The issue is one of allegiance, how much is due Caesar and how much is due God.
Some Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus while he is teaching in the Temple. Their intention is to trap Jesus in his speech. Politically the Pharisees were your standard liberals. Theoretically they were opposed to the Roman occupation but in practice they were against any serious confrontation or rebellion. As liberals often are, they were unwilling to risk anything personally for their anti-Roman beliefs. They had too much to lose, living comfortably with the status quo. They talked like Zealots, the ‘Freedom Fighters’ for Jewish nationalism but acted like the conservative Herodians and Sadducees out to protect their privileged positions.
The Herodians and the Sadducees would never publicly criticize the Romans. They owed their existence to the Romans. The Herodians were supporters of King Herod. The Sadducees ran the Temple. King Herod and the Temple could not exist without Roman approval. They were committed to keeping things as they were. All three groups, found Jesus to be a dangerously destabilizing person to the political order, someone they all needed to get rid of.
The Pharisees and Herodians intended to trap Jesus by asking him about paying taxes to Caesar. They began by flattering Jesus, addressing him as ‘teacher’, one who truthfully and sincerely teaches Gods ways and who was not beholden to or favoring any human being. They asked him point blank, “Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not?” Jesus saw through their mocking flattery and hypocrisy. He immediately sensed a trap they were setting for him and he told them so. Jesus knew if he answered “No”, there is no lawful obligation to pay Caesars’ tax; he would please the crowds, who hated the Romans. Doing this he would give the Roman authorities reason to move against him. If on the other hand Jesus answers “Yes”, there is a lawful obligation to pay Caesar’s tax he would be discredited before the crowds showing himself to be no friend of freedom and justice for his people.
“Whose Head Is This, And Whose Inscription?” Matt. 22/20
With Solomon-like wisdom, Jesus turned the tables on his opponents. He asked the Pharisees and Herodians to “show him the coin used for the tax”. As soon as they handed Jesus the Roman coin he reversed the trap that was set for him. The Roman coin they handed to Jesus was used solely for the Roman tax. As soon as they handed Jesus the Coin they publicly exposed themselves, the crowd knew their true allegiances were to the Romans.
“Then Give To Caesar What is Caesars; But Give to God What is God’s Matt.22/21
With a great sense for the dramatic, Jesus asked the Pharisees and Herodians whose image and inscription was on the coin? “Caesars”, they were forced to reply. Jesus’ cute phrase at the end of this weeks Gospel was no real answer to the question whether or not one should pay Caesars tax. The possession of the Roman coin by the Pharisees and the Herodians was answer enough. Jesus’ sense of the dramatic and his cute turn of words at the end of the text only served to heighten the duplicity of his opponents.
The Issue is Allegiance, How Much to Caesar, How Much to God?
I think it was Dorothy Day who first said, “Once you give to God what is God’s due there’s darn little left for Caesar.” Our God has always been a jealous God. From the time Abraham was called, till today and onto the end of the world, our God will demand our complete loyalty and total allegiance. All other claims on our lives, family, friends, church, and nation, are secondary to God’s claim on us.
In this weeks Old Testament and Gospel text we deal with different aspects of Gods relationship to the political world. Our text from Isaiah showed how the Lord God is Lord of history. All peoples, great and small, who shape world history, are in the service of God whether they know the Lord or not.
In the Gospel, Jesus is confronted on the issue of paying taxes to Caesar. It’s important to note, the issue is not whether to pay taxes in general. The right of the state to exist and to levy taxes is not in question. There is a legitimate place for the state and governments in a Christian world view (RM.13). What is at issue in this Gospel is whether it is lawful to pay Caesars tax, a tax that supports and sustains an oppressive and unjust Empire. Jesus exposed the Pharisees and Herodians for the hypocrites that they were yet he gave no answer to the question whether or not to pay Caesars
However, Jesus does address the issue of political allegiance throughout the whole Gospel of Matthew. After his return from the Temptations in the desert, Jesus began his ministry in Galilee preaching repentance and proclaiming the Kingdom of heaven was near. (Matt. 4:17). As profoundly religious and spiritual as this kingdom is, it is also a political entity. Jesus presented this Kingdoms political platform with the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. (Matt. 5-5). By worldly standards the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are completely impractical. They are based on the power of non-violence and unconditional love. Like the Old Testament Prophets before him, Jesus is deeply committed to justice and the cry of the poor yet he would bring about his world sweeping social changes through the example of the suffering servant. Jesus is advocating a new politics, anchored in the new spirit of life that he brought into the world.
In his mission strategy, Jesus did not take on the Roman Empire directly. He chose instead to challenge his own people and leaders first. That is what he was doing in Jerusalem the last week of his life. It became painfully clear to him that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were rejecting him and his message. They were too much like their roman counterparts to recognize who Jesus really was and embrace his radical ways. Their rejection cost Jesus his life but not his mission. As we claim and know in faith Jesus’ death on the cross was the way to his resurrection and glorification. On Easter Sunday morning Jesus was vindicated and so were his teachings, including those that interfere with the political world, as impractical and unrealistic as they might appear. Jesus fully expected his disciples to follow in his footsteps, embrace his risen spirit and live out his Gospel mandates, all of them, even the impractical and unrealistic ones.
Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, to the Church of the Thessalonians 1 These 1:1
These words are the first written for the New Testament. St. Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels and the letter to the Thessalonians is the first letter Paul wrote that made it into the scriptures. It is only fitting I conclude my weekly scripture reflections from jail with the first words that appear in the Christian Scriptures. With these words a new religion based on a book was started.
The New Testament began with personal letter from one believer to a faith community. Many of the letters from Paul that made it in the New Testament were written in jail. Paul wrote about his faith in Jesus Christ by using his own personal experiences as his starting point. His letters were a personal testimony of one mans faith in Jesus that found meaning for all believers who follow him. Often he used his letters to support, thank, encourage and reprimand the communities to whom he was writing. Each letter was personally tailored to meet the needs of a particular community. A man deeply moved by the person of Christ wrote all of them.
90 10 21 – From The Pen of Fr. Frank
For the past six months, I too have been writing letters to a Faith Community, a community of friends and supporters. Each week I used the Sunday Lectionary text as my basis. Much of my writings dealt directly with the text, explaining, interpreting and sharing their meaning as I came to embrace them. My study helps were the Share the Word, Sunday lectionary series put out by the Paulist Fathers and back columns of Fr. Bob Beck’s “Sunday ‘s Word”, from the Dubuque Archdiocese newspaper the Witness from the years of 1981 and 1984.
As the weeks progressed I let the text help me share with you my biblical worldview, my basic Faith perspective and the daily struggles I have experienced in jail. A combination scripture study and public journal, these weekly reflections have been my personal testimony of Faith in Jesus from behind bars. The discipline of prayer, study and writing that went into each of these letters helped give meaning to 180 long days of confinement. These letters were my creative outlets in a place where creativity is hard to come by.
The letters themselves are much longer than either Kathryn Epperson or I expected them to be. They remained lengthy because of the kind of confinement in which I found myself. Doing time in County Jails gives a person plenty of spare time during the day. Had I been sent to a Prison or Camp, it would have been more difficult to write such long letters. I owe a great thank you to Kathryn, my devoted support person. Her hand, heart, spirit and time have had an equal share in these ramblings of mine. She matched my effort hour for hour, editing, typing, xeroxing, and mailing –and she did all this work while living a real life with a full time job, a true act of love. Thank you, my friend. I am in your debt.
Finally, I hope that in some small way these letters have helped you in your faith journey, given you some insights into the word of God and brought you closer to the Spirit that lead me to this place of confinement in the first place.
I am anxious for freedom. I will be returning to my parishes, St. Anne’s in Logan and Holy Family in Mondamin. I have missed them terribly these past six months. I look forward to being with them again, as priest, pastor and friend. I’ll have a better perspective on these days of confinement after spending some good quality time with the good people Harrison County.
God Bless You All,
A great big thank you to everyone who gave me help getting out the newsletter. It was an awesome task!!! To all of you both near and far, I hope you enjoyed the letters. Fr. Frank was at his best. Time did not permit proofing and editing so thank you for not noticing the errors. Perhaps Father Frank and I will gather them together in better form sometime. So until next time (NEXT TIME ???????) Thank you to old friends and new ones I have come to know this time around. .
Prison Writings / Pastorial Writings
90 10 21 – Freedom At Hand:
The end of my long captivity is close at hand. The last six-months have been rough on me. Doing time in County Jails is difficult at best. With the end in sight, my thoughts turn to you and my return home. I know our separation has not been easy. I am grateful to Fr. Dennis Traush for filling in for me while I have been imprisoned. It has been a major reassurance for me to know my absence did not leave you without a full time pastor. Thank you, Fr. Dennis for your service to the people of St. Anne’s and Holy Family parishes. We also owe a big thank you to Bishop Bullock for assigning Fr. Dennis to cover for me in my absence. It was a generous sign of support for me and concern for you.
However, my deepest thanks and gratitude go to you, the people of St. Anne’s and Holy Family parishes. For the second time in three years you have been burdened with a six-month absence of your pastor. You did not choose nor welcome these separations yet you lovingly endured them. For all the pain and confusion my absence might have caused any of you I am truly sorry. You have my deepest gratitude and appreciation. I hope to make up for some of the pain in the months to follow.
Still, despite the separation, I strongly believe I did the right thing. I was where I needed to be. To be faithful is never an easy task in any age. You’ve known me long enough to know my activities at S.A.C. are rooted in my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and my need to be faithful. Not everyone is called by God in the same way, nor need everyone agree with each other’s unique callings. I believe I’ve done what God has called me to do and because of this I am a better Christian and a better priest.
Bishop Bullock has asked me to take the month of’ November off to rest, recuperate and renew myself for re-entry into full time parish work. I have gratefully accepted the Bishop’s offer. Unlike the last time when I did my time at a Federal Prison Camp, this go around I was locked up in County Jails. Six months of semi-lockdown settings, with no fresh air, limited exercise opportunities, no work programs to plug into, poor diets and living under the glare of florescent lights 24 hours a day has taken its toll on me. I really need the extra time! I know this will delay my return to you. Fr. Dennis has generously agreed to stay on until I return the first weekend of December. I’ll be joining you full time on the first week of Advent, a great season to re-enter your service. I truly miss you very much, I can’t wait, I long to be with you again as priest, pastor and friend.
Homecoming Celebration: Before I take off for Nov. R&R I will be in Logan for a –Homecoming Celebration, November 1- All Saints day at St. Anne’s, 7:00 p.m. Mass and reception to follow. Hope to see many of you there.
I love you all. .