A parable for our time: The Prophet Isaiah wrote of Cyrus, King of the Persian Empire who knew not God, but was chosen by God to bring religious freedom to Israel.
The word, “parable” comes from the Greek, παραβολή, which designates a story that imparts wisdom. The parables of the Gospel are a unique literary form with roots in Old Testament rabbinic literature. Jesus spoke to his disciples in parables that were entirely fictional accounts. Like the well known Parable of the Prodigal Son, they were meant to move the listener to concede a point of understanding.
In the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, parables in the rabbinic tradition can also have historical meaning. This post conveys a story with historical truth, but like the parables of Jesus it is also meant to convey a point of understanding about events in the present. You might even find the parallels quite amazing.
With only rare variations, in any given week between seventy and eighty percent of the readers of These Stone Walls are in the United States. In earlier years, readers in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and European countries comprised most of the remaining twenty to thirty percent. More recently, this has been changing, and now it varies greatly depending on the post I write.
Several times in recent months, the countries visiting this site the most after the U.S. have been Nepal and the Philippines. I could not understand what the people of Kathmandu found so interesting in my post, “Reunion in Bangkok: Thomas Merton and Pornchai Moontri.”
I have noticed, from weekly TSW traffic reports, that readers in other countries actually increase when I write about current events in the United States. Even though we are in a state of “Defcon One” in U.S. politics, it is hard for me to NOT write about some developments, especially when they fall within the realm of religion and religious freedom. If I fail to address what seems to capture the attention of an entire nation, then I feel as though I am overlooking the elephant in the sacristy.
I just received a snail-mail letter from “Frances” writing from the United Kingdom. She is a long time reader who occasionally comments on my posts. Here is an interesting excerpt from her letter:
- “A lot of your posts recently have been about the state of your country and the upcoming elections. I often consider the differences between our two countries and sometimes I wonder why people are so surprised by public opposition in the USA to the Catholic Church. Here, we are still grateful not to be hanged, drawn and quartered, or crushed to death. A practicing Catholic here could not in reality serve as Prime Minister, and it would be very difficult for a Catholic to be a member of Parliament. I think they would have to make too many compromises.
- “Some might claim to be Catholic, but looking at what they do and how they vote, that is questionable. We are used to this situation. We take it for granted that we are the ‘outsiders’ swimming against the tide of public opinion, patriotism, and respectability. With the help of God, we just persevere. But in your country now, the Church seems to have gone from being accepted and respected to being persecuted.”
The persecution is not as overt as it was in post-Reformation England. We will not see Catholics hanged, or drawn and quartered. What we will see – what we are about to see – is a shameless display of Catholic accommodations to the political left’s march further left. The Bishop of San Diego comes to mind. In a recent rebuttal to Father James Altman, the Bishop wrote that denying the Eucharist to a pro-choice politician means that we must also deny the Eucharist to anyone who does not accept climate change. It gives us a new spin on the Gospel warning about wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15).
There are other Catholic leaders, however, who have stood out with courage and integrity in defense of Catholic moral teaching. One is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, who penned a surprising op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in 2018 entitled, “The Democrats Abandon Catholics.” It was an honest and faithful assessment of the state of the Democratic party and its betrayal of Catholics who embrace the Church’s traditional defense of life.
IN DEFENSE OF JERUSALEM
It was inspiring to see Cardinal Dolan defend the truth against an anti-Catholic onslaught of biased rhetoric from politicians who court Catholic votes while carrying out a frontal assault on Catholic beliefs. “The dogma lives loudly in you,” said Senator Diane Feinstein to judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, another member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a subject of my post, “One Nation Under God’ defended that unconstitutional religion test for Amy Coney Barrett in a PBS interview this month.
The greatest tragedy to befall the Catholic Church in the United States was to accommodate itself to the culture in which it lives. Church leaders became comfortable in America, then amassed power, then tried to hide the corruption that always accompanies the quest to retain power. There is no more vivid example than the career path of former Cardinal, Theodore McCarrick whose distortion of the Church’s mandate for the culture of life was laid bare in my post, “Joe Biden, Cardinal McCarrick and the Betrayal of Life.”
The precarious state of our religious liberty, however, has an important historical precedent. I did not at all intend to write about religious liberty while a new Catholic justice is being measured for the U.S. Supreme Court, but that choice was made for me from Higher Authority. When I looked at the Mass readings chosen long ago for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time in this cycle, the Prophet Isaiah made this decision for me. Here is the First Reading:
- “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, opening doors before him, and leaving the gates unbarred: For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, My chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. I am the Lord and there is no other; there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord. There is no other.” (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6)
There is little known of the Prophet Isaiah except that he lived in Jerusalem and his prophetic activity extended from about 740 BC to 701 BC, a period of about forty years. In the passage above, the Lord, through Isaiah, is addressing a man named Cyrus who is called by God and given power and a title, “though you knew me not.” The power and authority given to Cyrus is not for Cyrus, but rather so that “the people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord.”
Two centuries after the prophesies of Isaiah, in 597 BC, Israel fell under the armies of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. This account, told in the Second Book of Kings (Ch. 24ff) resulted in two waves of exile of the Jews into Babylon. In the first wave, in 597 BC, Israel’s leaders were compromised and taken away. This undermining of the leaders was for the purpose of destroying the religious identity of the people. Then, in 586 BC, the real devastation came. Babylon destroyed the Temple and the entire city of Jerusalem, and sent the remaining Jews into exile.
Then, some two centuries after first appearing in the prophecy of Isaiah, God took the right hand of a man named Cyrus, who knew not God, and subdued nations before him, placed kings in his service, opened doors and unbarred gates just as predicted. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and all its surrounding regions to become first king of the Persian Empire. Cyrus did not live a lifestyle that the People of God had any reason to respect. He did not appear to believe in anything but himself.
But Cyrus had one quirky trait that seemed to have been instilled in him by a much Higher Authority. Despite his personally sinful lifestyle and quest for Earthly powers, Cyrus developed respect for the Jews and their faith. So he did what only the Emperor of Persia could do. He issued an edict ordering the reconstruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple, and he returned the Chosen People from their fifty-year exile in 539 BC.
THE PROPHET EZRA AND THE DECREE OF CYRUS
The Prophet Isaiah presents Cyrus as appearing in about 545 BC as the hope for Jerusalem. He is bestowed by Isaiah with a rather lofty title, “the anointed of Yahweh.” Such a title marks the beginning of the era of messianic prophecy for Israel. The title would have been seen as a great insult to the Jews, but they came to view Cyrus from his present actions and not his past lifestyle. Isaiah (44:28) expanded his title to “Shepherd of Israel,” in recognition of the strangest trait that was found in him: his almost obsessive insistence on the promotion of religious liberty and the establishment of laws that will guarantee and protect it.
In regard to the restoration of Israel, this hope was fulfilled in 538 BC when Cyrus ordered the protection of the Jews and their return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of their Temple from the treasury of the Persian Empire. The full text of the Decree of Cyrus appears in the Book of the Prophet Ezra (6:3-5) a passage once doubted for its authenticity, but now accepted as authentic by modern Scripture scholars:
- “In the first year of Cyrus the King, a decree concerning the House of God in Jerusalem: Let the House be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices are offered and burnt offerings are brought. Its height shall be sixty cubits and its breadth sixty cubits with three courses of great stone and one course of timber. Let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. And also let the gold and silver vessels of the House of God which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the Temple be brought to Babylon to be restored and then returned to the Temple in Jerusalem, each to its place in the House of God.” (Ezra 6:3-5)
The Prophet Ezra went on to describe that some of the restoration of Jerusalem was interrupted by local vassal kings who did not believe the conquering tyrant, Cyrus, would issue such an order. A complaint was made by a local governor to Darius I, King of Hystaspis, that the Jews were rebuilding the city. Darius then found and authenticated a copy of the Decree of Cyrus, and ordered that the Temple and reconstruction of the city be continued with no further hindrance. This was the same King Darius, by the way, who threw Daniel into the lions’ den (Daniel 6:6ff).
Is their a point of understanding to be considered from all this in our present time? Only you can arrive at such a conclusion. I have already arrived at mine, and I must come down on the side of religious liberty. I am tired of seeing the Little Sisters of the Poor having to defend themselves in never ending court proceedings. I am tired of listening to hapless bishops equate the immorality of 70-million prenatal executions with “climate change.” I shuddered when the Pentagon announced that the U.S. Navy would halt all Catholic Masses on base – a decision that was mercifully reversed from higher up.
And we should all tire in coming days of seeing the Catholic faith of a Supreme Court nominee maligned. Our Temple is rebuilt from within. Catholics must not acquiesce to exile and accommodation to a culture of death. Our faith and our vote are not mutually exclusive.
+ + +
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: In a previous post, I also took a deeper look at the Gospel for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, “What Belongs to Caesar and What Belongs to God.”
You might also like these related posts:
- The Feast of Corpus Christi and the Order of Melchizedek
- Crime and Punishment on the Solemnity of Christ the King
- Apocalypse Now? Jesus and the Signs of the Times