Separation of Temple and State

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 — Week of Proper 25, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 119:49-72 (morning) // 49, [53] (evening)

Ezra 6:1-22

Revelation 5:1-10

Matthew 13:10-17

Our first reading this morning describes a rather disturbing collusion of empire and temple. King Darius of Persia makes a decree and also publishes a long-lost decree from King Cyrus that promises lavish support for reconstructing the Jewish temple. Why? Not from pure benevolence, but “So that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and his children.” The officials of the Persian empire seem to think that they can retain their own power and prosperity by sponsoring the sacrifices and prayers of God’s people.

Not that people in power don’t need our prayers! We are right to ask that all people in power might receive God’s wisdom, courage, and compassion. But God’s people in worship should not simply provide a smooth and sure foundation for the ambitions of empires.

Buried within this passage that celebrates the return of God’s people and their treasures and the restoration of their worship and festivals, we find some extremely telling verses. These reveal the violence at the heart of the empire: If anyone opposes this plan for reconstructing the temple, then “a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it.” With one hand, the empire gives generous gifts and rebuilds a house of worship; with the other hand, the empire is prepared to take life and destroy homes.

This reading with brutality at its center also manages to end on an eerily jubilant note. God’s people keep Passover with joy—joy because the Lord “had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God.” But is it such a blessing to be dependent on the whim and the wealth of one powerful ruler?

Suppose that instead of offering one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and twelve male goats, the people in today’s reading had offered simply a Psalm or two. Our Psalm from this morning would be perfect. It quite starkly declares the psalmist’s allegiance not to imperial decrees from Cyrus and Darius, but to the Lord: “I have considered my ways and turned my feet toward your decrees.”

How effectively the Psalms can redirect our worship from serving an empire through a temple to serving the poor and rejected through a world-enveloping love. Our daily offering of the thoughts of our hearts and the works of our hands can help us not to build a temple with imperial wealth, but to fulfill John’s vision in our second reading: “you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” So may we be today, wherever we are—not tools of an empire, but proclaimers of God’s kingdom.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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