God's Word on Sunday: We all have a part to play in God’s plan

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  • October 11, 2020

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 18 (Year A) Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5a; Matthew 22:15-21

King Cyrus of Persia was an unlikely candidate for the title 'messiah' (anointed one) in the Hebrew Scriptures. But the text is clear: Cyrus was the anointed of God. Not only that, God gave him the power necessary for his long string of military victories. 

The people of Israel were exiled to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple 586 BC. Fifty years later, Cyrus the Persian vanquished the Babylonians and marched into Babylon. His policy towards conquered people was a bit more tolerant and humane than the norm in those days. He allowed the Jews to return home — at least those who wanted to — and contributed material and money towards the rebuilding of the temple. 

Some of the people did return and attempt to make a fresh start, but with less than spectacular results. Judea remained a weak vassal state of the Persians for nearly 200 years. The God of Israel was unknown to Cyrus, as the prophecy stated. And he was certainly not aware that God had enabled his victories or that he was doing God's will. No matter — God's ways are not ours, and God was not the least bit perturbed by Cyrus' status. 

We all have a part to play in God's grand plan for humanity. Some participate knowingly and willingly, but others, like Cyrus, play a more hidden or anonymous role. God chooses and uses whoever will suit the divine purpose. 

Labels and identities mean little to God, and God is willing to look far outside the expected circle of candidates. This is one (of many) reasons to refrain from judging and is also a reminder to stand back and look at the big picture. There is far more than meets the eye and much that we do not understand. It is not all about us or the group to which we belong, but the entire world and all humanity.

Paul was filled with admiration and gratitude for the Thessalonian community. This was not for any particular grand thing that they had done, but for who they were. He was impressed by their faith, hope and love — the three anchors of godly living — and by the fact that they had been chosen by the Lord. 

The evidence for this was their reception of the Gospel not only in word, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. Living in the Holy Spirit should be the norm, but often it is not. For many the Spirit remains a theological concept rather than a lived experience. Our own faith, hope and love can prepare the way for the Spirit to do its work in and through us.

No one likes paying taxes. Most recognize that it is a necessary evil for the sake of the common good. But in the time of Jesus, paying taxes meant far more. 

In the ancient world, there was no division between politics and religion. In the Roman empire, living emperors were often deified and worshiped. 

Jesus was presented with a no-win question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor? If He agreed, then He was a traitor to His nation, people and God. If He replied in the negative, then He was a rebel against Rome. They even tried a bit of flattery before they asked Him the question. But Jesus refused to fall into the trap. Calling for a coin, He asked whose image was on it, to which they replied, “Caesar’s.” He then told them to give to Caesar whatever belonged to him, but nothing more. 

According to Old Testament theology, the entire land and everything in it belonged to God and was merely on loan to the people. That did not leave much for Caesar. They were to give to God all that belonged to God, presumably everything. 

Jesus focused on the tribute, allegiance and reverence that belongs exclusively to God, who is outside and above all earthly political and social systems. Rulers are not to be deified or worshipped; political systems are not sacred or holy. Much harm has been and is still being done when people conflate their religious faith and their political beliefs. 

Many give uncritical adulation and obedience to rulers, leaders and ideologies. One's devotion and worship must always be focused exclusively on God, to whom everything belongs.

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