TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2020)
Readings:Isaiah 45:1, 4-6Psalms 96:1, 3-5, 7-101 Thessalonians 1:1-5Matthew 22:15-21
Our first reading from Isaiah highlights the universal sovereignty of the God we worship, the King of the Universe. In a typically Jewish way, all things and all persons are seen as being under the mantle of One God, even such an unusual personage as the Persian King, Cyrus the Great. Cyrus is lauded by Isaiah, who suggests that God held his “right hand,” was “opening doors before him,” and “subduing nations before him.” Isaiah is giving God the credit for his success, a success that is going to have a very positive impact on the Jewish people. All of this is done even though Cyrus didn’t know or recognize God as the King of the Universe, and it’s done “so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, [and] there is no other.”
So, why is it that the Jewish people should have any affection for a Persian King? Because that Persian King is the cause of their temporary redemption. For fifty years the Jewish people were held captive in Babylon. They were taken there when the Babylonians conquered them, destroyed their city, Jerusalem, and tore down their Temple. For fifty years the Jews have been waiting for their deliverance, and when Cyrus conquers the Babylonians, he allows the Jewish people to return to their homeland, Judea, and begin the rebuilding of their Temple. Not only that, but Cyrus returned to the Jews the gold and silver vessels which the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple. This is why Isaiah goes so far as to call Cyrus “his anointed,” or “Messiah,” a term usually reserved for the kings, prophets and priests of the Chosen People. This passage in Isaiah was revolutionary, and it was meant to challenge the Jews’ parochialism and give them a more universal view of God’s concern and plan. It is the same thing that Jesus will do many years later with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and chief priests. Cyrus is the Gentile that God will use to benefit the Jewish people, and those Jews will be challenged by Jesus to see the Gentiles as worthy of the redemption inaugurated by Jesus.
The first reading stands on its own as worthy of reflection, and I suspect that its connection to the gospel reading (remember the first and third readings are most often connected; the second reading usually performs a “best supporting” role) is largely connected to the “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Of course, every good Jew saw everything as belonging to God, even Cyrus, so every person is to see God as the source of all that is good, and His repayment is meant to be commensurate with such a role, i.e. complete.
Remember that Jesus is in the midst of His last trip to Jerusalem, and so it is not surprising that we can see the rising tensions that will result in His crucifixion: “the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.” The Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus with less than pristine motives, and they begin their conversation with Jesus with flattery: “you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” The gospel tells us that Jesus is not deceived by their flattery, and he “knows their malice” and goes so far as to call them “hypocrites,” before asking them “show me the coin that pays the census tax.” It is safe to assume that the Herodians provided the coin, since a strict Pharisee would never carry something with a “graven image” on their person. Jesus’ succinct reply suggests He knows this is a ‘no win’ situation – no conversions will happen, no hearts will be moved: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
The trick question was intended to get Jesus to admit that you could only be loyal to God or to the emperor, thus offending someone by your answer. But Jesus avoids the trap, because He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and He will not be dragged into the hypocrites lair, no matter how important they pretend to be. The tax can and should be paid, and it poses no threat to the more fundamental love that we should have for the God who has given us life. We have all been created in the image of God. Like the coin that bears Caesar’s image, we are meant to bear the very image of the God we love and adore, and we are meant, as the Psalmist says, “to tell his glory among the nations; among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.” We will find salvation, happiness, fulfillment, and endless delight when we give ourselves wholly to God. The Christian life claims our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and when that life is fully embraced, that is when the image of God shines through our very different exteriors.
This Sunday is World Mission Day, and we are reminded by Pope Francis that “the Church,” of which we are a part, “is on mission in the world. Faith in Jesus Christ enables us to see all things in their proper perspective, as we view the world with God’s own eyes and heart.” By nature of our baptism, we are meant to respond generously to the missionary dimension of the Church. We go, not just to far away countries, but to the hearts and minds of men and women that have yet to be touched by their loving God. “By proclaiming God’s word, bearing witness to the Gospel and celebrating the life of the Spirit, [we] summon to conversion, baptize, and offer Christian salvation” to the countless men and women we come in contact with. Pope Francis points out that the missionary mandate of the Church should touch us personally, that we are, in fact, a mission. “People in Love never stand still: they are drawn out of themselves; they are attracted and attract others in turn; they give themselves to others and build relationships that are life-giving. As far as God’s love is concerned, no one is useless or insignificant. Each of us is a mission to the world, for each of us is the fruit of God’s love (Pope Francis).”