Give to God that which is His

  • October 9, 2014

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

Who are the “good guys” and “bad guys” in our world? We are prone to dividing the world into the sheep and the goats and attaching the appropriate tags. It can be rather satisfying, and it doesn’t take much reflection or discernment. A mere negative visceral reaction to someone is usually sufficient grounds for a damning label.

The trouble is, people seldom fall into those neat and tidy categories. Very few people are totally good or evil — most are a blend of both. Isaiah gives us a rather shocking (at least to the Israelites) example of this phenomenon. The Persian ruler Cyrus is designated in this text as the Lord’s Messiah — His anointed one. This probably made many in Isaiah’s audience angry and confused — how can this be, since he is a pagan ruler and enemy of Israel?

After many years in captive exile in Babylon, the Babylonians were defeated by Cyrus and a new regime began. Cyrus had a rather enlightened attitude: he repatriated captive peoples to their homelands. He released the captives from Judea and allowed them to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding their nation, although they would still be subordinate to Persia.

Isaiah claimed that Cyrus was an instrument of the God of Israel and was anointed by God for the purpose of restoring the people. He was a man with a divine mission. Ironically, Cyrus was completely unaware of this status and mission! He was a secret messiah, even to himself.

The prophets learned during the exile that God was at work in other nations too and that non Israelites could be God’s instruments. Their understanding of God developed into one that was more universal. This should make us cautious about judging those outside the community of faith or making political judgments based more on ideology and emotion than reflection and discernment. God is always at work everywhere and through everyone. If we could see the big picture but for an instant we would be humbled and overwhelmed. On a smaller scale, even those around us have their important role to play in this cosmic drama, even though we might not understand or appreciate that role. Finally, we have our own role too — it is possible and even likely that God is using us in important ways of which we are not aware.

In a similar vein, Paul addressed the issue of being chosen. He was convinced that his followers in Thessalonica had been chosen by God because he saw the evidence of the Spirit in their lives. Their reception of the Gospel was not only in word, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we assent to the message of the Gospel, we also assent to God using us as an instrument for service to the Gospel and to humanity.

People are never really happy about paying taxes, but at least in a modern setting taxes make possible the many services that we receive. In first-century Judea, it was a different story. The local people received virtually nothing in the way of services — all of the money went to support their hated Roman oppressors. The question posed to Jesus — along with a little insincere flattery — was a complete set-up. If He agreed that it was permissible to pay taxes to the emperor, then He was a collaborator and traitor to His people. If He said no, then He was a rebel against Rome and could be arrested and killed. By pointing to the image of the emperor on their coin, He exposed their hypocrisy: they had no scruples about using such a coin.

His enigmatic answer can be read at two levels. First of all, to give to God what belongs to God means commitment, loyalty, love, service and one’s whole mind and heart. Caesar should only get a paltry, dirty coin — he doesn’t deserve any more than that. On another level, since Jesus came to subdue and restore a rebellious world to God, nothing really belongs to Caesar.

The role of Christianity in earthly government has always been a contentious issue, especially in our own time. The question that we should ask ourselves daily is whether we have truly given to God what belongs to God. If we haven’t, then nothing else matters. 

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