29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The second part of the Book of Isaiah provides this weekend’s first reading. Much happened after the first section of Isaiah was written.
The mighty Babylonian Empire had overwhelmed God’s people, literally destroying the two Hebrew kingdoms, the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah. The reigning dynasties were extinguished. Many were killed. The Babylonians took a number to Babylon, the imperial capital. There these exiles, or their descendants, were to languish for four generations.
In those four generations, however, the Babylonians lost power. Eventually, they too were overtaken by a stronger adversary, Persia. The Persian king, Cyrus, conquered Babylon. He 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 unequaled joy.
A most novel turn of phrase was the prophet’s designation of King Cyrus as an instrument of God. The reason that this was a novelty was that Cyrus was a pagan. He was not in any sense a son of Abraham. His ancestors never followed Moses across the Sinai desert in the Exodus. Yet, God used Cyrus to accomplish the divine will. The divine will was to effect the survival, and the return to peace and security, of the children of Abraham.
For the second reading, the Church presents a passage from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. Thessalonica was a Greek city on the Greek mainland of the Balkans. It exists today as a living community, the Greek city of Saloniki.
The epistle comes from Paul, along with his disciples Silvanus and Timothy.
As Christians at the time everywhere throughout Asia Minor, the Christians of Thessalonica were in the midst of a hostile culture. Virtually every convention in the Roman Empire, that covered all of Asia Minor, stood in utter opposition to the Gospel of Jesus.
Paul, therefore, had to reassure, encourage and strengthen this community. He also had to assert his own credentials. He was an Apostle, specially chosen by Christ. His authority came from the Lord, yet he spoke as a most devout believer in the message of Jesus.
St. Matthew’s Gospel supplies the last reading. It is one of the best known passages in the New Testament. Again and again, this text has been used to defend a very draconian view of separation of Church and State, almost as if it is that there are two reservoirs of divine authority in human life, one dealing with religion, the other with government, and never the twain shall meet.
The Gospel clearly exposes an attempt to ensnare Jesus. If the Lord spoke against paying taxes, then Roman law would be defied, and the Romans were unforgiving in the face of defiance. Yet, by approving payment of taxes, the Lord would endorse the hated Roman conquest and occupation.
Jesus fell into neither trap. The basic final point was that the more important reality is the kingdom of God in which God reigns. Everything is subject to God’s moral law.
It is a great pity that this magnificent lesson from Matthew’s Gospel so often is diverted to, and indeed incorrectly presumes as the teaching of Christ about, regarding the relationship between Church and State.
The lesson is much, much more profound. It is about reality. Church-state relations of course are real with quite serious implications. However, the message is much broader. All the discussion of church-state relations aside, Christians must make every decision in light of the Gospel.
“Render to God” is the standard. “Render to Caesar,” yes, but most importantly render all obedience to God. Base all judgments on God’s law.
Life cannot be compartmentalized, either for individuals or for states. Everything is subject, first, last and always, to God’s law.
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