God's Word on Sunday: We all have our part in God’s playbook

  • October 20, 2023

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

As we make our way through the world, it is often difficult to distinguish who the villains and the heroes really are. Appearances often deceive, and Satan can come cloaked in light. Sometimes, however, those whom we initially thought to be covered in darkness reveal a bit of light.

In 539 B.C., Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and became king. Many were probably prepared to view him as just another power-hungry conqueror, but they were in for a surprise. He treated the various ethnic communities throughout the empire with justice and tolerance, and soon decided to allow the captive Israelites to return to Judea. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God addresses Cyrus as His “anointed” — messiah — and promises to ensure that he is victorious over his enemies.

Why would God do this? For the sake of His servant Jacob and Israel His chosen, God decided to elevate Cyrus. And now Cyrus had decided to release the Israelites and send them on their way with letters of recommendation and passage. Interestingly, as God went through the list of favours He had bestowed on Cyrus, God twice added the comment “though you do not know me.” Cyrus would have been shocked and maybe a bit disconcerted to learn that he was the anointed of the God of Israel. Then again, perhaps he would not.

All this was for the purpose of revealing to the world that there is no God but the God of Israel. Cyrus was an unwitting proclaimer of the word. God uses us for His own purposes and often does not bother to consult us — and that is how it should be. We all have our bit parts to play in the divine plan. To make matters even more bewildering, even people we might despise are called upon to contribute to the effort. This is one of the numerous reasons we are urged not to judge others — we are often wrong or do not have the entire picture. Labels and judgments do not serve us well and only contribute to the world’s confusion and darkness. God definitely uses a different play book than most people do — perhaps we should try borrowing a page or two.

Paul was amazed, grateful and proud of the community in Thessalonica. By the world’s standards, they were not flashy, successful or important. Their great achievement was the degree to which their lives were examples of faith, hope and love — the truly important things. Paul knew that they had been chosen by God, for His message of the Gospel came both in word and in power by the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that shapes and molds us and leads us into unknown territory. Sometimes the Spirit is quiet and gentle, while at other times the Spirit is far more vocal and insistent.

Those who were questioning Jesus thought they had Him trapped. First, they laid on some oily flattery, extolling His character and His virtues, hoping that His guard would be down. They asked whether it was permissible to pay taxes to the emperor — that is, to Rome. The question put Jesus in the dilemma of denying that it was permissible or approving it. The first option made Jesus into a rebel against Roman authority while the second painted Him as a collaborator and traitor. He couldn’t win either way. Asking for a coin, He inquired as to whose image was stamped on it. “Caesar” was the reply. The gist of Jesus’ response was that it must then belong to Caesar since it had his image on it — best to give him what was already his. But the important part of the message was the command to give to God what belonged to God — and that meant practically everything.

The question of what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God has bedeviled Christians for 2,000 years. Most recognize the necessity of supporting the common good through taxes even when we don’t agree with how all of it is spent. The main problem is that many give God’s share to Caesar in the form of unquestioning obedience, nationalism, adulation of authority and domination of others. The things that belong to God are our hearts, minds and consciences. They are precious and must be safeguarded from every form of corruption and misuse.