Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The second part of the Book of Isaiah provides this weekend’s first reading. The context was 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.
Invasions had 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 holding the exiles from the once-Hebrew kingdoms, so he allowed them to return home. For them, 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 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 Letter 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, ministering with his disciples Silvanus and Timothy.
Paul reassured, encouraged and strengthened Thessalonica’s Christians, trying to exist amid a hostile, pagan culture. He also forcefully asserted his own credentials. Paul insisted that he was a most devout believer in the message of the Lord Jesus, and an Apostle, specially chosen by Christ. 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.
The reading does not teach that two reservoirs of authority exist on earth, equal but distinct, removed from each other: one the state, the other God.
Detractors thought that they could trick Jesus. If the Lord spoke against paying taxes, Roman law would be violated, and the Romans were unforgiving. If Jesus approved paying taxes, then the hated Roman conquest and occupation would be validated.
Jesus fell into neither trap, bluntly stating that God’s law is supreme. The emperor’s image on the coin was important. Give it back to him. It only is metal, an earthly invention.
Sadly, this magnificent lesson from Matthew’s Gospel often is distorted in interpretations of the separation of church and state in the American constitutional context.
The Bill of Rights responded to the widespread practice at the time of preferring and legally supporting one denomination over another. England maintained Protestantism. France and Spain enforced Catholicism.
Constitutionally, in America, primacy was given to personal conviction, including religious conviction. The state should not frustrate or complicate individual conscience by elevating one stated theology over another.
Civil authority has rights and dignity, because it enables justice and the common good. But today, Christians who detest legal abortion, which is frankly now the law of the land, are fully within their human and constitutional, rights.
Even in democracies, civil authority comes from fallible human judgments. Divine revelation is from God.
Church-state relations and differences, of course, are real, and have serious implications. Admittedly, not all differences are clear-cut. Do one person’s rights impede another’s? Still, give God allegiance.
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