Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3-5, 7-10
The ever-encouraging prophet Isaiah in our first reading must have surprised his listeners when he refered to Cyrus, King of Persia, as the instrument of God’s care and concern. Isaiah appears to throw the mantle of God over the pagan Cyrus, earlier calling him God’s shepherd, ”who fulfills my every wish (Is 44:28).” Tired of their years in exile, the Jewish people were no doubt ecstatic that their years of captivity had come to an end. They would be allowed to return to their homeland Judah, and not only that, but they would be allowed to rebuild their Temple and city. Cyrus would also return to them the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple. This was all more than the Jewish people could have hoped for, and Isaiah wanted to make sure that they understood that this was all the work of not just the new and benevolent pagan king, but it was the doing of the loving God, “who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens (Is 44:24b).” The God who had chosen the Jews as his people, was the God who was using Cyrus to accomplish the very restoration of the Jewish people. Even though Cyrus did not know the God of the Hebrews (Is 45:5b), it was He who accomplished this wonderful turn of events.
It was a similar ethos that permeated the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. Like Isaiah, Jesus saw the salvation he brought as aimed at “all peoples,” and he prodded the Jewish leaders in particular to move beyond their parochial worldview. Jesus frequently reminded the Jewish people that they had squandered their privileged status, and in their place would be Gentiles and tax collectors and sinners. The hypocritical chief priests and the Pharisees found Jesus’ message annoying, and so as Matthew’s gospel states they were plotting “how they might entrap Jesus in speech.” They were hoping they could expose Jesus as a fraud and put a stop to his disturbing preaching. It was for this reason that some Pharisees and Herodians approached Jesus, and after showering him with faint praise, they asked him, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Aware of “their malice,” and knowing they were merely trying to test him, Jesus cleverly asks for a Roman coin, something a good Jew would never carry. It was that despised coin which enabled Jesus to avoid the trap the Jewish leaders had set for him.
It would be easy to take Jesus famous saying – “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” – and make it speak to whatever political situation one wishes. In our liturgy Jesus is not speaking about the separation of Church and State, although there is something to be said about what constitutes good citizenship. Indeed, Jesus did not even answer the question posed to him by the Pharisees and Herodians, recognizing the true motivation of their query. What Jesus states is what every good Jew believed, that God “made all things (Is 44:24),” and God is not in need of our money or any earthly gift. What God wants of us is truth and goodness, what is right and just. Our hearts belong to God, and we show our gratitude to that extraordinarily generous God by loving God and all those created in God’s image. Our opening prayer (Collect) for this liturgy expresses simply what we are called to do: “Almighty ever-living God, grant that we may always conform our will to yours and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart.” That is what we render to God! Amen.