Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
It is an interesting exercise to reflect on those who have been your teachers during life and why they made an impression on you. In our early years, we were eager to learn and be taught. It was a life-forming and life-giving experience. Beyond the information and skills we picked up, there were underlying beliefs and interpretations of the why’s and how’s that give coherence to life. These were usually being communicated under the radar of consciousness, but they were the really important teachings. We were ready to open ourselves in trust and absorbed the direction they gave to constantly emerging questions in our life.
The Herodians and Pharisees come to Jesus with a question, but first they address Jesus with a description that is spot on, but which they obviously don’t believe. Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. This could stand for an reverse description of their own dealing with truth. It is a thinly veiled deception, grandiose and inflated flattery that is meant to deflect honest assessment of reality. Its failure to express inner perception makes it a sterile and lifeless abuse of the invitation to openness and trust that human speech is called to embody. It is speech like that of Satan at Christ’s temptation: Since you are the Son of God… Will you fall for this? It is a form of testing that sucks life-blood out of words and uses them as abstractions and even weapons. We know. We know. This is knowledge that doesn’t require commitment, engagement or trust. It is knowledge that can acknowledge only objects and turns even people into objects. We know, but we really don’t know. This knowledge is power and draws energy from superiority, polarization and hostility. This people honors me with its lips, but its heart is far from me.
As usual, Jesus doesn’t cease being a teacher. He takes his opponents very seriously and respects their question. He turns this confrontation into a teaching moment. Knowing their malice, Jesus said: Why do you test me, you hypocrites? This is a naming of truth, the unearthing of what is really going on, that has the potential to bring a liberating awareness to the questioners. This is a knowledge which impowers and doesn’t overpower. For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction. Rather than contend with his opponents on their own level, he opens a deeper level which cultivates trust and honesty and has the potential to dissolve the dilemmas and oppositions we create for ourselves.
Teaching moments (and learning moments) can come when and where we least expect them. They come when our answers no longer answer, when what “worked” does so no longer, when we have come to limits and begin to let new questions emerge. When we have been disarmed. We could never have expected that a pagan ruler like Cyrus could be called the Lord’s anointed and whose right hand be grasped by the Lord in service of Israel. It takes imagination to begin to see how the Lord may be acting in ways that seem incongruent and incomprehensible to us. Whose image is this and whose inscription? Another question. It may not only unsettle us, but allow us to admit unsettling questions that don’t admit of easy answers. Maybe new ground is being plowed under our feet where these questions will find a welcome acceptance and take new root. Cyrus was being told that he was in fact an instrument of the Lord although you know me not. Our questions and being questioned often reflect the unknowing that is calling forth our trust in the One who calls us, that we may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, there is no other.
Jesus continues to teach us the way of God in accordance with the truth. It is a way, which lives to conform our will to yours and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart (Collect of today’s liturgy). It is a work of faith, a labor of love, and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are the images, inscriptions and fingerprints of God in our world being drawn back to render full praise, thanks, and worship to God. Whose image is this and whose inscription?