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 kept 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 God of Israel. His ancestors had never followed Moses across the Sinai Peninsula in the Exodus. Yet, God used Cyrus to accomplish the divine will. The divine will was responsible for the survival, and 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 Greek city on the Greek mainland of the Balkans. It is one of the few New Testament cities still existing as an important center, 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 in the midst of 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, almost as if to say the reading declares that two reservoirs of authority exist on earth, equal but distinct, one the state, the other God. This is not the Gospel’s message.
Jesus was presented with a text. Detractors thought that they could trick the Lord. If the Lord spoke against paying taxes, then the Roman law would be violated. The Romans were unforgiving, and he would be doomed. If Jesus approved paying taxes, then the Lord would endorse the hated Roman conquest and occupation.
Jesus fell into neither trap. He bluntly stated that the spiritual, God’s law, is the supreme. Consider first and last the kingdom of God.
Sadly, this magnificent lesson from Matthew’s Gospel often is distorted into considering the separation of church and state in the modern context, arguing that God is on one side, civil authority on the other.
Reigning supreme over everything is the Gospel. Even civil authority must submit to God’s law and revelation. Civil power must serve divine law and order.
Church-state relations and differences, of course, are real, with serious implications. Surely the state deserves respect, but “render to God the things of God.” Everything is subject to God. First, last and always, God alone deserves homage.
The image on the coin was important. It bore Caesar’s profile, making it contemptible for Jews.
Give the emperor the detested, filthy coin. Give God true devotion.
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