Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Is 45: 1,4-6; I Thes 1: 1-5b; Mt 22: 15-21
Few of us have escaped any awareness of the recent Senate hearings on the nomination of Judge Amy Barrett for the Supreme Court. It seemed to be an exercise in verbal fencing. Senator Lindsey Graham said this is probably not about persuading anybody. The exchanges didn’t change any minds. They simply confirmed for each what they already thought. Some thought the hearings were useless.
We have moved very far from the real service of questions in our lives. They are not necessarily meant to test or rebut the opinions of others. Their first purpose is to express a willingness to enter into a relationship. They disclose our desire to know, to enlighten our doubts or ignorance. We are willing to let the other be our teacher. Monastic tradition (Christian and Buddhist) even reminds us that the person who “pushes our buttons” or elicits a strong reaction can be our teacher. They are telling us something that polite exchanges never provoke. The booklet we used for our Conversation Groups said that good questions open up areas of ambiguity; they touch our lives and experience; and they evoke a response of accountability or anxiety.
The protagonists in today’s Gospel drip with deceit. The effusive words they use and their formalized posturing are cloaks for their real intentions. Their words and actions are decoys and distractions from their real inner purpose. Honesty is replaced by hypocrisy. Words are used to appease and dissimulate. This misuse is meant to demean and abuse. It is insincerity which ultimately dehumanizes both the speaker and the one who is addressed. Rather than seeking to enter a relationship by their question, the Pharisees and Herodians intend to entrap Jesus. They are not interested in persuasion. They assume their superiority which allows them to test Jesus in a relationship of inequality.
Jesus’ reply as a teacher is the inverse of their approach. He sees to the heart of the exchange and bluntly names it. Knowing their malice, Jesus said “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites.” This naming of the truth could be taken as an insult or as a liberating awareness of the deceit which has been operative. Rather than flattering appeasement, truth may have to cut painfully to the marrow of the pretense. Jesus sees their malice, but does not condemn them or turn his back on them. Like a good teacher, he refocuses and reframes the question so that it relates to lived experience. Show me the coin that pays the census tax. They must dig into the pockets of their complicity with the dictates of imperial control. They are given the opportunity to recognize the artificiality of separating out the sovereignty of God and his rule from the concrete realities of human life. To ask is it lawful can end up in false dilemmas when the Word of God is set up in opposition to human life. The word becomes an abstraction, a tool, and even a weapon when it is severed from the spirit, will, and very mind of God. For our Gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction. Jesus sets their question in a broader and higher framework of obedience to God, of discerning his image and inscription in the heart of creation and relationships with others. It is a discernment which can recognize God’s option to enlist Cyrus in his ministry as one who unknowingly collaborates in God’s plan.
Jesus asks his adversaries questions. And he asks us questions, questions which open up areas of ambiguity, which touch our living experience, and which evoke a personal response. He knows that the Gospel is not a set of detached principles but an energy leading us into unknown areas and calling for new responses to changed situations. The word of the Gospel is Spirit and power, not entrapping us but opening and liberating our hearts from the deceit and malice that keep us from entering the Kingdom of God. Maybe it is about persuading — persuading us to change our assumptions about how God is actively present among us.
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time