OCTOBER 22ND, 2017: TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
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.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the
Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you,
remembering you in our prayers,
unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love
and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,
before our God and Father,
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God,
how you were chosen.
For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.
The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion,
for you do not regard a person's status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the
census tax to Caesar or not?"
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax."
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"
They replied, "Caesar's."
At that he said to them,
"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God."
It might be best to start this commentary by looking at today’s oft-misunderstood gospel pericope.
This passage is frequently employed by those who wish to divide the world between God and “Caesar,” church and state. They frequently use it to defend their conviction that the church and its ministers should stick to “churchy” things, and leave matters of state to those who have a special expertise in such matters.
The main problem with such reasoning is that a church/state configuration of the world was unheard of at the time Matthew penned these lines. His Jesus is simply getting out of a trap set by his enemies, stating something obvious to everyone.
His enemies are convinced they have him cornered. If he says, “Yes, pay the tax!” the Pharisees would sneer and say, “You’ve just lost all credibility with the people. You’re nothing but a lackey of our Roman occupiers.”
Should he say, “No, don’t pay the tax!” the Herodians would yell, “Traitor! Roman soldiers will be coming around later tonight to arrest you for treason to the Empire.”
But by asking his enemies to produce the Roman coin used to pay the tax, then inquiring whose image and name are on the coin, he’s saying, “If you’ve got something in your pocket that belongs to someone else – proven by the name and image – and that person wants it back, then you’d best give what’s Caesar’s back to Caesar.”
The kicker, in this verbal confrontation is what comes next: “And repay God what belongs to God.” In other words, “Why are you more interested in what Caesar owns than in what God owns?” The gospel Jesus obviously presumes the coin, the person who has it, and even Caesar belong to God, something his enemies have yet to learn.
Our sacred authors constantly try to get that point across. No one does it better than Deutero-Isaiah. He does it so well in today’s first reading that some scholars believe these words actually were one of the reasons he was martyred.
Centuries before this unnamed prophet began his ministry; the Chosen People were convinced Yahweh would eventually send a special person to deliver them from all their troubles. They often referred to this unique savior as “Yahweh’s Anointed.” We’re familiar with the Hebrew and Greek words for anointed: “Messiah and Christ.” Deutero-Isaiah is daring to call the Persian emperor Cyrus - an uncircumcised, Gentile leader - Yahweh’s Messiah (or in Greek, “Cyrus Christ!”) For most exiled Israelites to whom the prophet was speaking, that was taking prophecy one step too far. In their minds, if Yahweh was going to save them, Yahweh would send a good Jewish boy – like Moses – to accomplish the task.
Yet, like Jesus, Deutero-Isaiah is convinced that everything and everyone belongs to God. He/she can work through anyone, even non-believers. It’s up to us believers to discover God actually doing this.
Though after the prophet’s death, Cyrus eventually freed the Israelites, the lesson of God’s “broad behavior” was still hard to learn. Six centuries later, for instance, Paul runs into opposition from main-stream Jewish/Christians because he baptizes Gentiles without demanding they first convert to Judaism. Today’s passage from I Thessalonians – our earliest Christian writing – shows how pleased he is that these non-Jewish converts are, without knowing anything about the 613 Mosaic Laws, performing “works of faith and labors of love.” They’re part of God’s “Chosen” People even though they’re not Jews.
As we know from Galatians 3, Paul is convinced that the risen Jesus is unlimited; neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, man or woman. Today we could add gay or straight, Democrat or Republican.
Only God knows what people we’ll be expected to add to that list tomorrow.