October 16, 2005: TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
It’s not unheard of that people will use a biblical text to defend the very position which the sacred author condemns in the text. This is how some have employed today’s gospel pericope.
Jesus’ words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s!” have often been presented as the biblical basis for our modern division between church and state, excusing people of faith from concerning themselves with things political. Those who interpret these words that way seem to believe there are parts of the universe (outside of our bathrooms) where God’s presence and concern is rarely found. Nothing could be further from Matthew’s theology.
His narrative revolves around Jesus’ adroitness in sidestepping an ingenious trap. Natural enemies have discovered a common enemy: Jesus. Pharisees, among other things, insist on a strict division between Jews and Gentiles. Herodians, on the other hand, work for the Gentiles governing Israel.
Their plan is simple. If Jesus says, “Don’t pay the Roman tax!” the Herodians will have him arrested. If he says, “Pay the tax!” the Pharisees will see to it that he loses all credibility with his fellow Jews.
Jesus avoids their trap by getting his enemies to admit something presumed in ancient economics: the civil leader actually owns the money everyone uses. In this case, if it’s Caesar’s coin – proven by his image and inscription – and Caesar demands it back in taxes, then you’d better return to Caesar what’s Caesar’s.
It’s important for Jesus’ ministry that he add the last statement: “Give to God what is God’s!” “God’s realm” isn’t meant to contrast with “Caesar’s realm.” It’s just Jesus’ way of saying, “Don’t forget that everything is God’s; you, the coin and Caesar.” How could he teach anything else? His entire mission is rooted in opening people’s eyes and ears to perceive God working in their lives in ways and places they’d never before noticed.
In trying to convey the all pervasiveness of God’s presence, Jesus is following in the footsteps of his prophetic predecessors. Deutero-Isaiah must have blown Jewish minds when, during the Babylonian Exile, he delivered the oracle found in today’s first reading.
In Israel’s sixth century, BCE, belief, Yahweh was their God. Other people and countries had their own gods, less powerful, concerned and involved than Yahweh, but gods who actually existed. Yahweh, supposedly, had no power or influence in the territory of another god.
Deutero-Isaiah conveys a new image of Yahweh: “I am Yahweh and there is no other, there is no God besides me.” Not only can Yahweh help the Chosen People in Babylon, but the Babylonian gods don’t even exist! That means Cyrus, the Persian emperor on whom the prophet bases his hopes of liberation from exile, is controlled by Yahweh, and not by his Persian gods. Deutero-Isaiah not only proclaims this, he goes further, having Yahweh call Cyrus “his anointed.” This uncircumcised, pagan, Gentile dictator has become Yahweh’s Messiah. (We today, with our Greek based vocabulary, would refer to him as “Cyrus, the Christ.”)
Both Jesus and Deutero-Isaiah believe that our experience of God’s presence, power and methods of salvation must always be expanded.
That’s why Paul can marvel at how God, in Jesus, is working through his Gentile converts in Thessalonika. In the first lines of the earliest Christian writing we possess, the Apostle is amazed at how God has broken through the God-limiting-barriers we humans have erected. “Our preaching of the gospel,” he writes, “proved not a mere matter of words for you but one of power.”
What similar walls would our sacred authors expect us to be tearing down today?