Sometimes it can be aggravating when someone answers a question with a question, but when looking for the theme of our readings this week, that’s what I get. Who is God and what do we owe him? The answer to both questions is “everything.” This theme has its origins in the 1st Commandment, “I am the Lord your God… there is no other.” But what does that mean to us on a practical level? In short, it is God whom we thank for everything we have, and because of this, it is only to God whom we owe our allegiance.
The Word for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
We open with a reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah… in this case, “Deutero” or Second Isaiah. The Exile is coming to an end. The Babylonian Empire has fallen to the Persians and now Cyrus, whom we know as Cyrus the Great, has been, according to Isaiah, anointed by God. Cyrus? A pagan? A foreign king? Yes. How could this be? Simple… God can choose whomever he wishes. The hand God chose to free Israel from her Exile was in fact the hand of Cyrus, the king of the Persian Empire, who through the defeat of the Babylonians, now has set Israel free and wants to send them home. To Israel, this is not only redemption, but an opportunity to show everyone, God’s power and God’s mercy. To show all nations, that it is God whom we thank, God whom we honor, and God who we owe everything. Our Psalm echoes this song of praise.
Our Gospel from Matthew picks up, again, where we left off last week. The Pharisees, whom after having been confronted by a series of parables from Jesus (chastising them severely), go off and plot their revenge. They send their disciples back to confront Jesus with a question about paying the Imperial tax. The question is a trap. If he says pay the tax, he gives the Sanhedrin evidence he’s siding with the Romans. If he says don’t pay the tax, he give the Romans evidence for inciting rebellion. But Jesus knows this is a trap, and finds a way around it. He asks for a coin, and then asks them to identify who’s image is on the coin. It is, obviously, Caesar’s, whereupon Jesus says, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
This story, shared in all three Synoptic Gospels, marks a profound break from Hebrew tradition… that is, separating fealty to God from that of the temporal authority. Jewish tradition puts its focus on the Jewish state… in other words, Israel ruled by Israelis. Jesus, on the other hand, sees fighting against the Roman occupation (and the Herodian dynasty) as counterproductive. Instead we should focus on our relationship with God and let everything else flow from that. I would argue that it is here where Jesus himself originates the concept of a separation between church and state. Empires come and go, but God remains.