“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he has taken by his right hand to subdue the nations before him and strip the loins of kings” Is 45:1
Such unrestrained praise of a foreign king, such as Cyrus, ruler of Persia, was comparatively rare on the lips of Old Testament prophets. From the very beginning Israel had clung to a fragile independence, threatened on all sides by her more powerful neighbours. That independence had been finally snuffed out with the Babylonian conquest, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of her inhabitants.
The mounting power of Persia, represented by the benign rule of Cyrus, had forced Israel to rethink her ingrained suspicion of foreign powers. Cyrus had decreed the freedom of captive peoples. Thus Israel’s Babylonian exile had ended and her captives set free to rebuild Jerusalem. Most importantly, they had been allowed to follow their ancient faith. In singing the praises of Cyrus, the Prophet Isaiah represented a dawning awareness that God’s saving will reaches far beyond national boundaries and prejudices: “It is for the sake of my servant Jacob, of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, conferring a title though you do not know my name.”
Throughout our world religious intolerance has become the symptom of competing power. We see its naked violence in atrocities throughout the Middle East. To a lesser extent, we witness it in the racial intolerance that is never too far below the surface in our own societies. Racial intolerance readily converts to religious persecution. In Cyrus, outsider though he was, the Prophet Isaiah recognised the hand of God. Let us pray for a wisdom that seeks to set peoples free, that rejoices in the differences that can so easily divide.
Let us seek to acknowledge the presence of God in the stranger.
The encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in today’s Gospel highlights the destructive reasoning that fuels unrest. Seeking to trap Jesus, the Pharisees demanded that he choose between orthodoxy and Rome’s foreign domination: “Tell us your opinion. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” The trap was obvious. If Jesus consented to the payment of taxes to Rome, then he was an infidel and traitor. If he refused to pay such a tax, then he could be denounced to the occupying force. Jesus turned the trap into a challenge that confronts us every day. Taking a coin that bore the image of Caesar, the common currency used by all at the time, he demanded that we “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God”. Modern society shares more than currencies and exchange mechanisms. We share ideas, knowledge, customs and prejudices.
Much of this inheritance reflects God’s presence. Some, however, is undoubtedly contrary to his will. The discerning and humble heart will render to this world what is its due, but to God what belongs to his saving will. In practical terms, we will reach beyond our prejudices to acknowledge good wherever it is to be found. Above all we shall acknowledge that our deepest self belongs to God, and to him alone.