Jesus: ‘Give to God what is God’s’

29th Sunday of the Year A

Father John A. Kiley
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Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4?6 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:1?5; Matthew 22:15?21

Throughout much of the biblical period the Jewish people were dominated by various foreign powers: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, the Greeks and finally Rome. In today’s readings both Second Isaiah and Jesus offer us visions of how God’s power and demands are operative, even in situations where the chosen people have no political power. As we listen to the wonders of God’s power in shaping human events for his saving purposes, let us acknowledge his greatness in the words of the responsorial psalm: “Give the Lord glory and honor” (Ps 96).

The Isaiah reading is the famous Cyrus oracle of Second Isaiah in which the prophet announces that the Persian king Cyrus is God’s “anointed” agent for freeing the exiled Jews from their captivity in Babylon. Although Cyrus does not even know the Lord’s name, from the prophet’s perspective, his victories over nations, including Babylon, are the Lord’s actions “for the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one.”

The prophet’s vision separates God’s saving plan from Israel’s political ambitions. Many exiles may have preferred a Jewish deliverer like Moses or David, but Second Isaiah daringly gives the pagan king, Cyrus, the title of “anointed” or Messiah. If God can use an unbelieving, foreign king to further his saving purposes, then Israel's task is not to become a great political power. Rather, she is called to be a “servant” and “witness” to the one true God (see chapters 42, 44-45, 49, 53).

For the next several weeks, the Epistle reading will be taken from the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, probably the earliest writing in the New Testament. This Sunday we have Paul’s greeting at the beginning of the letter. Because of tensions within the community, Paul had to leave Thessalonica rather abruptly, and therefore in the traditional thanksgiving section, he assures the Thessalonian Christians of his continued union with them in prayer and encourages them to maintain their commitment to the Christian virtues: faith, love and hope:

“We keep thanking God for all of you and we remember you in our prayers, for we constantly are mindful before our God and Father of the way you are proving your faith, and laboring in love, and showing constancy in hope in your Lord Jesus Christ.”

There has also been some criticism of Paul since his departure, and, therefore, he begins to defend the way in which he preached the Gospel among them. Paul insists that his preaching was not a matter of mere rhetoric but an authentic preaching of the Gospel:

“Our preaching of the Gospel proved not a mere matter of words for you but one of power; it was carried on in the Holy Spirit and out of complete conviction.”

This Sunday’s Gospel continues the controversies between Jesus and the religious leaders who are attempting to "trap him in speech" during his last days in Jerusalem. The question of paying taxes to the Roman emperor is raised by two groups who had very different views. The Pharisees, as devotees to the Jewish written and oral law, opposed the tax because it forced them to admit Israel’s subjection to pagan Rome and to use coinage bearing the image of Caesar. But the Herodians, who supported the descendants of Herod the Great, advocated cooperation with Rome. In this situation, Jesus apparently cannot win, when the disciples of the Pharisees ask: Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not? Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by asking them for a coin of tribute. He does not carry such coins; they do. His question goes on to intimate that to carry such coins, bearing Caesar's image, is to cooperate with the emperor’s rule:

“Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax … Whose head is this, and whose inscription?”

The Pharisees are forced to say the image is “Caesar's,” and they thereby concede that they recognize the claims of Rome on their lives. This makes the meaning of Jesus' final challenge something like this. Because you carry Caesar's coin, it is clear that you "render to Caesar what is Caesar's," but I challenge you hypocrites to "give to God what is God's."

Throughout Christian history many have been tempted to identify a particular political cause with God's will. Jesus' challenge forces us to be aware that God's demands and purposes transcend any particular political project.