FROM A READING FOR OCT. 19, 2014: 29TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering.'- I Thessalonians 1:5

One surprising side effect of studying Scripture critically is the ability to experience one's faith life without a constant dependence on Scripture. Instead of just slavishly looking up and memorizing Scripture quotes, we begin to meld into the mindset of the sacred authors: replacing our value system with theirs, looking at everything and everyone around us through their eyes.

If we immerse ourselves correctly in God's Word, we'll eventually start to go one-on-one with the uniquely holy one - the entity in the universe who is completely "other" - quickly discovering that both our minds and our faith are continually expanding.

We can never be certain from which direction God will come into our lives, nor what God will expect of us once we surface His eye-opening and value-changing presence.

People formed by biblical faith constantly "hang loose." They approach reality from a unique perspective. Remember how Mark's Jesus answers Bartimaeus' chapter 10 request, "I want to see." Contrary to expectations, Jesus doesn't say, "Receive your sight." He simply responds, "Go your way; your faith has saved you." Our faith enables us to see what others miss.

Who's on first?
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Sunday's Deutero-Isaiah passage (Is 45:1,4-5). The exiled Israelites who actually believed this unnamed prophet's message to get ready to return to the Promised Land had just one basic question: "If our leaving Babylon is going to be a new Exodus, who's going to be the new Moses? Who among us has Yahweh chosen to lead us out of here?"

Deutero-Isaiah doesn't beat around the bush. He immediately names a name: "Thus says Yahweh to His anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp."

It's an unbelievable choice! Cyrus is the uncircumcised, pagan, sixth-century-BC dictator of Persia. Yahweh's handpicked "messiah" (the Hebrew word for anointed), the liberator of Yahweh's people, isn't even a Jew! Employing our Christian terminology, he's "Cyrus, the Christ."

"I have called you by your name," Yahweh declares, "giving you a title, though you knew me not."

How does the prophet know Cyrus is the messiah? He simply reads the daily newspaper. Cyrus not only is conquering one country after another, Cyrus also grants religious freedom to those he conquers. When he eventually subdues Babylon, the prophet presumes he'll let the captive Jews return to Jerusalem, rebuild their temple and practice their religion (which is what more or less actually happened).

I presume that many in Deutero-Isaiah's audience walked away shaking their heads when they heard Cyrus' name, convinced this particular prophet wasn't Yahweh's mouthpiece. Their God worked through Jews for Jews. Gentiles had their own gods. Why would Yahweh employ a non-Jew to save Jews?

Proving a point
Paul's faith experience (I Thessalonians 1:1-5b) is parallel to Deutero-Isaiah's. Though he's personally convinced a non-Jew can be as much another Christ as a Jew, it's important that he see this happen concretely.

His evangelization of Thessalonica proved his point: The Gentiles who committed themselves to dying and rising with Jesus have turned out to be just as good Christians as their Jewish brothers and sisters.

In this earliest Christian writing we possess, the Apostle sings the praises of this non-Jewish community. Both this week and next, we'll hear him boast about these people, specially "chosen" and "loved" by God.

Even Matthew's Jesus (Mt 22:15-21) expects us to broaden the field in which God works. After giving a practical answer to the question of paying taxes, He reminds us, "[Pay] to God what belongs to God."

He presumes the census tax coin, the pocket in which it's kept, and the person who owns it all belong to God - but it still takes lots of biblical faith to stop dividing reality into areas in which God's welcome and in which God's excluded.