Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The second part of the Book of Isaiah provides this weekend’s first reading. The context is a very bad time for God’s people. The two Hebrew kingdoms no longer existed, both having been victims of a military onslaught from neighboring, and very strong, Babylonia.
The invasions swept away the structures of the two kingdoms. Their dynasties were eradicated. They lost their independence. Many people died. Survivors were at the mercy of the invaders.
Victorious invaders took many of the survivors to Babylon, the capital of the empire, where the Hebrews were not exactly as hostages, but their lives were miserable.
Times eventually changed, however. The Babylonians themselves fell before the intrusion of a powerful neighbor, Persia.
Cyrus, the Persian king, had no interest in the exiles from the once Hebrew kingdoms, so he allowed them to return home. For the exiles, it was a day of unequalled joy.
A most novel turn of phrase was the prophet’s depiction of King Cyrus as an instrument of God. It was a novelty since Cyrus was a pagan. He was not in any sense a son of Abraham. He had no knowledge of, or regard for, the One God of Israel. His ancestors had never followed Moses across the Sinai Peninsula in the Exodus.
Yet, God used Cyrus to accomplish His divine will, which was responsible for the survival – and the return to peace and security – of the children of Abraham.
This weekend’s second reading is from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. Thessalonica was a city on the Greek mainland of the Balkans. It is one of the few New Testament cities still existing as an important center, the site of the modern Greek city of Saloniki.
The epistle comes from Paul, along with his disciples Silvanus and Timothy. Paul had to reassure, encourage, and strengthen Thessalonica’s Christian community, which was trying to exist amid a hostile, pagan culture. He also had to assert his own credentials. Paul insisted that he was a most devout believer in the message of the Lord Jesus. He was an apostle, specially chosen by Christ. So, his authority came from the Lord.
St. Matthew’s Gospel provides the last reading. It is one of the best-known passages in the New Testament. Again and again, this text is used to defend the principle of separation of church and state, as if to say that two reservoirs of authority exist on earth, equal but distinct – the state and God. This is not the Gospel’s message.
Jesus faced a question. Detractors thought that they could trick the Lord. By opposing paying taxes, Jesus would insult Roman law. The Romans were unforgiving. Jesus would be doomed. If Jesus approved paying taxes, then the Lord seemingly would endorse the hated Roman conquest and occupation.
Jesus fell into neither trap. He bluntly stated that God’s law is supreme. Consider first and last the kingdom of God.
Sadly, this magnificent lesson from Matthew’s Gospel often is distorted into arguing for the separation of church and state – in the modern context, seeing God on one side and civil authority on the other, each with equal standing.
This is the actual message. Reigning supreme over everything is the Gospel. Even civil authority must submit to God’s law and revelation. Church-state relations, freedom of conscience, and individual political opinion create differences, not necessarily bad, but “render to God the things of God.”
Since everything is subject to God – first, last, and always – God deserves homage in any human decision.
The image on the coin was important. It bore Caesar’s profile, making it contemptible for Jews because Caesar was an oppressor. Give the emperor the detested, filthy coin, only a piece of metal. Give God total devotion of the heart.
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