Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (19 October 2014)



  • Exodus 33:12-23 & Psalm 99 [Isaiah 45:1-7 & Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)]
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
  • Matthew 22:15-22

First Reading: Close encounters of the divine kind

This week’s first reading, from Exodus 33 in the Old Testament, is one of the classic biblical stories of a close encounter with the sacred reality whose radical otherness typically generates a profound sense of awe and mystery when humans find themselves in close proximity to the One who escapes all our attempts to define or manipulate.

Other similar texts that might profitably be read in conjunction with this week’s passage include:

  • Jacob wrestling with the stranger by the River Jabbok (Gen 32:22-32)
  • Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-14)
  • Elijah and the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13a)

The influential work of Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) is especially relevant here, with his definition of numinous as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans).

Second Reading: Paul to the Thessalonians

This Sunday all the major western lectionaries begin a series of readings from the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. In the case of the RCL, the selections over the next 5 weeks will be as follows:

  • 1:1-10
  • 2:1-18
  • 2:9–13
  • 4:13-18
  • 5:1-11

Rather than focus on the Gospel reading, as would usually be the case, our notes over those weeks will take up issues related to that letter:

  • Letters in antiquity
  • Paul as founder of local Christian community cells
  • Thessalonika: the city and its culture
  • Practical holiness: Facing death with hope and courage
  • Practical holiness: Anticipating the coming of the Lord

New Testament letters

When Paul composed a letter to the fledging Christian community at Thessalonika in the northern winter of 49/50 CE he was doubtless unaware that this marked a literary milestone: the first piece of Christian literature and the earliest writing for the future New Testament Scriptures.

The opening formula observes traditional forms and yet hints at the significance of the new movement that was beginning to take shape in the eastern Mediterranean:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

Twenty-one of the 27 books that comprise the NT are letters:

  • 13 attributed to Paul
  • 3 attributed to John
  • 2 attributed to Peter
  • 1 attributed to James
  • 1 attributed to Jude
  • 1 anonymous (Hebrews)

In addition we also find more letters embedded in other NT books:

  • Acts
  • Revelation

The Revelation to John is an apocalypse, but it has the overall form of a letter and contains a series of letters to individual local churches.
The four Gospels represent the only other literary type found within the NT, and even then this unusual “gospel” form owes much to the idea of an imperial announcement rather than the genre of the Life.

The letter was clearly a favorite literary form of earliest Christians, and we find it well represented in the extra-canonical Christian writings from the first two or three centuries along with apocryphal Acts and Gospels.

For a helpful list of these texts see Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings web site.

For a select set of letters from the ancient world chosen for their relevance to this topic, see:

1 Thessalonians

Paul’s longer letter to the Christian community in Thessalonika is usually dated to 49/50 CE. As we have noted, this would make it the earliest written text in the New Testament.

The shorter letter to Thessalonika (usually called “2 Thessalonians”) is either a letter written within a few weeks of the other letter — either before or after — or else it is a later forgery that has been written on the model of 1 Thessalonians. That is a not a debate that needs to detain us at this stage, but it is interesting to note that 2Thess is aware of false letters as well as the need to offer some form of authentication:

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. (2Th. 2:1-2,15)

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. (2Th. 3:17)

In the case of 1 Thessalonians, Paul has the following major sections:

  • Opening Formula (1:1)
  • Prayer of Thanksgiving (1:2–3:13)
  • Message (4:1–5:24)
  • Closing Formula (5:25–28)

Note the traditional ending, including the instruction for the letter to be read (out loud?) to all members of the community being addressed:

Beloved, pray for us.
Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.
I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Of more significance, however, is the impact of the considerable expansion of the brief prayer of thanksgiving so that is covers three chapters. With 42 of the 89 verses in the letter, this section represents almost half the total length, and is exactly the same length as the formal instruction section (4:1–5:24).

Such an unusual emphasis gives the letter a very positive tone, and celebrates the affectionate relationship enjoyed by author and addressees. It stands in stark contrast to Galatians, where there is no thanksgiving — just an immediate verbal attack on the recipients:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! (Gal. 1:6-9)

Next week we shall explore what we know about this early community to whom Paul addressed such an affectionate letter.

Gospel: Whose head on the coin

The following is an extract from Gregory C. Jenks, Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves (Morning Star / Wipf & Stock, 2014):

Ch. 2: Whose Head is on the Coin?

“Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:15b–17)

The well-known episode in the gospels when Jesus asks to be shown a coin, and then asks whose head is on it, alerts us to the value of coins for anyone seeking to understand the social and political dynamics of first-century Palestine. In the first place, the assumption that at least one of those standing around him would have some coins indicates the extent of monetization in the territories of Herod and his successors. Secondly, the presence of the emperor’s image on the coin reflects both the power of Roman influence in everyday Jewish affairs, as well as the avoidance of such images on coins minted by Jewish authorities. Coins were more than a means of exchange, they were symbols of the tension between the empire and its Jewish subjects.
As Jesus moved about among the villages of Galilee and navigated the complex responses of his contemporaries to the raw reality of Roman rule, a scene such as this would not have been improbable. Mark locates the confrontation in Jerusalem during the final days of Jesus’ life, but the underlying dynamic was always a factor in the time of Jesus as it was also when these traditions were finding written forms in the gospels known to us. This incident could have happened anywhere in Roman Palestine.

[Footnote 46] The question of just which type of coin was involved in this episode is one we may never be able to resolve. With the exception of coins issued by Philip the Tetrarch, coins with the image of the emperor did not circulate in the Jewish territories in the time of Jesus. On the other hand, pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for Passover may well have brought such a coin with them from the Diaspora, and their reason for seeking a ruling from Jesus may not have been as mischievous as the Synoptic Gospels now suggest. For an interesting suggestion on the identity of this coin, see Lewis, “The Actual Tribute Penny”.

For some further brief notes on this classic pericope in the NT Gospels, see the relevant Jesus Database page: 055 Caesar and God

One of the items on that page is the following poem by Gene Stecher:

Lawyers and politicians are everywhere,
Silver tongued hypocrites running for office.
You sir, are the embodiment of integrety,
Does the law require taxes to be paid?
Now would that be Hebrew law or Roman law.
This Denarius has Caesar’s head, right?
Everywhere you look and see Caesar’s image,
return whatever it’s stamped upon to him.
Every where you look and see God’s image,
return whatever it’s stamped upon to him.

Jesus Database

  • 055 Caesar and God – (1) Gos. Thom. 100; (2) Eger. Gos. 3a [50-57a]; (3) Mark 12:13-17 = Matt 22:15-22 = Luke 20:20-26.

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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