October 19 Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A Revised
Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
Taxation was controversial at the time of Jesus because the ruling government was a Roman colonial invader. Moreover taxes had to be paid with an imperial denarius. That coin had an image of Tiberius Caesar on one side, and on the other side there was an image of the female goddess of Rome. Such images were considered idolatry according to Jewish Law. Even more sensitive were the words under Caesar’s image, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.” Any debate on taxation was therefore delicate as it could be even today. The readings of this Sunday touch on the delicate relationship between Church and state; between Christian faithfulness to God and loyalty to one’s country. A good example of this is what we hear in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. The Lord speaks through Isaiah to Cyrus, King of Persia (modern Iran). In 586 B.C., an invader from Babylon conquered the Jews and sacked Jerusalem and even destroyed the great Temple on Mt. Zion. The King of Babylon (modern Iraq) then forced the Jewish people to leave Palestine and put them in exile in Babylon. While in exile, the prophets told the Jews to expect a savior. Then King Cyrus II, the founder of the Persian Empire (modern Iran) became very powerful and conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.. He then allowed the Jews to return to their homeland in 537 B.C. He also gave money from the royal treasury for rebuilding of their Temple on Mt. Zion. With the Temple holding the central place in the Jewish faith, the Jews quickly hailed Cyrus II as the “anointed” and knew that God had used the Persians to conquer the Babylonians.
The first reading from Isaiah reveals that at times, God may even use civil initiative to accomplish his own purpose for humanity. Isaiah uses the example of King Cyrus of Persia to illustrate this point. Isaiah shows that he was ultimately subject to the hand of God in delivering Israel from the bondage of slavery and restoring them to their homeland. In the Gospel, Jesus is in the Temple. The Pharisees have plotted to trick him into saying something that would be treason against the Romans. So they send some spies, the Herodians, who had maintained loyalty to the Roman Empire, and therefore supported the payment of taxes to Rome. The question is carefully crafted to solicit a positive or negative answer. Jesus knows the malice and hypocrisy of his questioners. In fact they are carrying coins bearing Caesar’s name and image. Jesus’ reply leads his opponents to entrap themselves. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s”, they replied. Then comes Jesus’ punch line. “Then, repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” The response of Jesus has many implications for the Church in today. Jesus does not commit himself to either side. Similarly the Church must never take sides, but has the role of guiding the faithful through formation, to know their rights in order to fulfill their civic duties as informed loyal citizens. What message do we take home? 1) There is no conflict in being good Christians and loyal citizens. 2) As Christians we must be truthful in all matters of civil life. 3) We will never be happy until we render to God what belongs to God because God has created us in his own image and likeness.
©2008 John M. Mbinda