God is the only valid authority

  • October 14, 2008
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 19 (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21)

Cyrus would probably have been very surprised and even amused to discover that he was the Messiah of the Jewish people. After all, he did not share their culture or religion, and he was not a member of their nation at all. In fact, he was their enemy — the one who ruled them during the latter part of their exile in Babylon. But the Hebrew text of Isaiah is clear — Cyrus is called moshiach — messiah or anointed one.
Originally the term did not refer to any transcendental saviour figure, but to one chosen and empowered by God to accomplish His will. Often it referred to the kings of Israel who were the descendants of David.

So why is a pagan and enemy graced with the title and role? The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC and destroyed the temple. The elite of Israelite society were carried into exile for a bitter sojourn far from home in Babylon. But 50 years later, Cyrus the Persian in turn conquered Babylon. By the standards of the day he had an enlightened policy towards captive peoples. He permitted many of the exiles to return and even supported the partial rebuilding of Jerusalem. And all of this was seen through the eyes of the prophet Isaiah as the hand of God.

Cyrus was an unwitting instrument of the will of Israel’s God. God works through many people in order to accomplish His just and kind purposes and often they are unaware of their special role. We may feel at times that our own lives are insignificant but from God’s point of view and in the context of the “big picture” we may have accomplished a great deal. In fact it is better when we are God’s anonymous instruments for it prevents our ego from getting in the way. Similarly it is all too easy to judge the life and the worth of another person without being aware of the role they are playing in God’s plan. Even those we consider our enemies might have something very important to contribute. Sometimes they bear a message or a lesson from God that is meant for us. Judging by appearances is the lowest form of spiritual awareness — we are always challenged to look beneath the surface.

How does Paul know that the Thessalonian community was chosen by God? Not because they professed a faith with their lips or made certain religious claims. The only authenticating sign of God’s favour and choice is the presence of the Holy Spirit and power. This is manifested by faith, hope and love, as well as steadfastness. There is a tendency to think of spiritual power only in terms of miracles and wonders. But faith, hope and love — especially in the face of persecution and struggles — are the greatest and most powerful miracles of all.

The ability of Jesus to dodge trick questions and turn the tables on His tormentors is truly amazing. They pose an absolute non-win question to Jesus concerning taxes to the emperor. The two possible answers will paint Him as either an anti-Roman rebel or a traitor to His nation. Neither choice is very attractive — in fact, they are both extremely dangerous. His answer has nothing to do with the supposed separate realms of faith and politics. The coin, already defiled with an image of the emperor, is in a sense worthless — the emperor’s face is on it so let him have it. But in a deeper sense it is a very radical response. Jesus is in the process of reconquering and restoring a broken and fallen world to God who is Lord of all. In reality the entire world and everything in it belongs to God, and emperors who make divine claims and put their images on coins are thieves and usurpers. So in effect Jesus is saying that Caesar gets absolutely nothing since nothing really belongs to him in the first place.

Many ideologies and power systems — political, economic, religious or a combination of all — make exalted claims to power and authority over the lives of human beings. Jesus unmasks and demythologizes all of these claims. The only valid authority is God, and the powers in human societies are legitimate only insofar as they reflect divine principles and respect for human freedom and dignity.