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OCTOBER 19, 2008: TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
I Thessalonians 1:1-5
Matthew 22:15-21

The title of Mircea Eliade’s best-known book, The Sacred and the Profane, is also the theme behind today’s first and third readings. As an expert on ancient myths, Eliade constantly reminded his readers and students of the powerful human tendency to divide the universe into God’s world and our world. God takes care of the sacred; we’re in charge of the profane. On some unique occasions and in some special places we’re permitted to come into contact with the sacred. But most of the time we live in the midst of the profane - time and space in which God has little power or effect on our lives.

Our synoptic gospel writers blew such sacred/profane theology to smithereens with one short statement. They mention, at Jesus’ death, “the veil of the temple” was torn in two from top to bottom. Though today no Scripture scholar or historian believes this event actually happened, it’s easy to understand what the evangelists are trying to convey by creating such an image. The veil separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place, a classic symbol of the sacred and the profane. On one side of the tapestry was the Ark of the Covenant, situated in a space where human beings were normally forbidden to enter; on the other side was the altar of incense, serviced twice a day by two different priests, nowhere near as sacred as the point beyond the veil.

If the veil is destroyed, so is our artificial division between the sacred and profane destroyed. Now everything, every place, and everyone is sacred. God’s presence is an essential part of our everyday “profane” lives.

Jesus isn’t the first person in the history of our salvation to surface and suffer for such a disturbing idea. In sixth century BCE Babylon, Deutero-Isaiah received a parallel insight from Yahweh. As with Jesus, it could have been one of the factors leading to his death.

This anonymous prophet’s central message is that Yahweh is about to bring the Chosen People back home from their Babylonian Exile. Because he constantly employs Exodus imagery to convey his point, his audience eventually asks a logical question: “Who’ll be the new Moses, the specially chosen, sacred person who’ll lead us from exile to freedom?”

Deutero-lsaiah reveals this hero’s name in today’s first reading: Cyrus! Cyrus is the uncircumcised, pagan Gentile Persian emperor. The prophet even refers to him as Yahweh’s anointed: the Messiah! Deutero-Isaiah is convinced that once Cyrus conquers Babylon, the Jews will be permitted to return to Israel. And that’s exactly what happened. Yet the prophet’s martyrdom - before the return - tells us the majority of “good folk” simply can’t stomach the idea of a God who accomplishes sacred things by working through profane people.

Be careful with today’s gospel pericope. When Matthew’s Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s,” he’s not going back on his theology to eradicate the sacred and profane, telling us God is sacred, Caesar, profane. He’s simply solving a practical question about paying Roman taxes. “If you use Caesar’s coins and he wants them back,” Jesus teaches, “then give them back.” But, on the other hand, he reminds us that the more important thing is to give God what’s God’s; that includes the coin and Caesar. Everything now belongs to God.

That’s obviously “the gospel” Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy preached to the Thessalonians, the gospel which empowered their faith, a gospel we don’t hear much about today.

Though it might make us feel religiously secure, whenever we hear anyone talking about sacred persons, sacred places, sacred vestments, sacred times, or even sacred writings, we can be certain someone has been working at sewing up the God-created split in the temple veil.