Lectionary commentary: twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary time, year A

#

"...give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s." - Gospel of S. Matthew, 22: 21


READINGS

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 45:1. 4-6

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 96:1. 3-5. 7-10.R/ v.7

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 1:1-5

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:15-21



How odd of God to choose the Jews! That old chestnut is not meant to suggest that God would have done well to choose some other people. The saying is meant to stir up surprise and wonder. How odd of God to choose anyone, especially if God knows the outcome. We, of course, are wise after the event. So we ask why did God choose Peter when, even before it happened, Jesus knew he would deny ever knowing him? Jesus knew that those who came to Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives would desert him and flee into the night. So why call Peter, Andrew, James and John, the runaway apostles? Why them? Why Paul? Why Silvanus and Timothy? Why Thessalonians? Why us?

And above all, why Cyrus?



A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 45:1. 4-6

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
[I am the Lord, and there is no other.]

The word of the Lord

Above all, why Cyrus?

Cyrus II was the King of Persia (558-530 B.C.) who defeated his dominant neighbours, the Medes. The Book of Daniel witnesses to the imperial might of “the Medes and the Persians” (Daniel 5:28).[1] Their imperial might lasted for 200 years, ruling the whole of the Middle East.

Those Jews who were exiled by the might of Babylon seem to have hoped that the rise of the Persians might lead to a return to the land of their fathers. Thus Isaiah has God speak of Cyrus as “my shepherd”:

he is my shepherd,
and he will fulfil my purpose,
saying of Jerusalem,
She shall be built’

and of the Temple,
‘Your foundation shall be laid’

Isaiah 44:28

But Isaiah places the Persian imperial ruler in the context of a higher power. The Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, the God who blots out the sins of his people, can use the kings of this world to serve divine purposes .Notice the context into which Cyrus is employed as God’s Messiah. First, there is God’s solemn covenant to care for the people that God elected to be his people in God’s world:

Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel,
for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

Isaiah 44:21

But many of God’s people have been living in exile, an exile inflicted by Babylon’s cruel policies. From God’s point of view, according to Isaiah, exile was God’s punishment for Israel’s failure to care for the poor and the needy. However, the Lord is a Lord of mercy and forgiveness:

I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
and your sins like mist;
return to me,
for I have redeemed you.

Isaiah 44:22

From an historical point of view what happened was that the Persian policy regarding conquered peoples was strictly a matter of economics. Far better to leave peasants in their own land to till the soil and create wealth. Then your civil servants can tax them mercilessly. The exiled people in Babylon would be worth more at home planting the seeds that would grow into Persian profits. In his prophetic imagination Isaiah looks upon the stark brutality of history from a God’s-eye point of view:

Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord,
who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself …
… who confirms the word of his servant
and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem,
‘She shall be inhabited,’
and of the cities of Judah,
‘They shall be built,
and I will raise up their ruins’ …
… who says of Cyrus,
‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem,
‘She shall be built,’
and of the Temple,
‘Your foundation shall be laid. ’”

Isaiah 44:24-28

So Cyrus the conqueror is turned into God’s Good Shepherd. Not only that. For in today’s reading he becomes God’s messiah. Isaiah casts Cyrus II as one anointed by God to carry out God’s saving intentions. Israel is saved. Historically speaking, Cyrus sends the exiled people of Israel home in order to collect more taxes. God brings them home in order that the people of Israel may fulfil their vocation. To be returned from the exile of chastisement is to be again “my servant Jacob”, to be “Israel my chosen one” chosen to enlighten the nations:

I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make well- being and create calamity,
I am the Lord, who does all these things.

Isaiah 44:5-7

The word “messiah” means one who is anointed with precious oils to signify dedication to a particular service. The Hebrew word māšíah occurs 30 times in the Hebrew Bible. No one is ever identified as “the messiah”. While prophets and priests are said to be anointed, the most frequent use is in the ritual anointing of kings.

The most significant anointing is done by a woman who came to the house of Simon the leper with an alabaster jar of very expensive oils and poured them over the head of Jesus. While some objected to the waste, Jesus insisted that “she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:8, and see Matthew 26:12-13).Jesus became known throughout the New Testament as ὁ χριστὸς, ho christos, the Christ. That title became a personal name for Jesus indicating that he is the unique Messiah, indeed, as Peter said,

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Matthew 16:16

The High Priest turned the words of Peter into an accusation. Jesus agreed, answering the High Priest with a determined affirmative:

You have said so.

Matthew 26:63-64

There is a direct line from the prophetic declaration of Isaiah to the declaration of Peter and the charge made by the High Priest. And, indeed, from there to the baptism of each person who is called Christ-ian, one anointed by God to proclaim the gospel of God to the world.


How odd of God...

A strange chapter in the Book of Jeremiah speaks glowingly of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. This tyrant, responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s Temple, is called “my servant”, as God speaks to Jeremiah. Indeed Jeremiah is told not to listen to a host of would-be prophets who oppose his prophetical ministry. To his surprise, he is told from on high “to serve the king of Babylon and live” (Jeremiah 27:17).

How can the great prophet be instructed by God to regard and to teach that such a tyrant is “my servant” (Jeremiah 27:6)?Strangely, the argument is this: Nebuchadnezzar is the Babylonian ruler whose might has swept through the Middle East and, having destroyed the land of Judah, exiled many of its people from their homeland to Babylonia. But that exile, while a tragedy of the kind suffered by the Jewish people in our time and on our continent, served other purposes.

According to Jeremiah the exile served God’s intention to bring his people back to their vocation to be a light to the nations. The tragedy of the exile served as a chastisement, an affliction that, in God’s design, reminded his disobedient people that they had exiled themselves from obedience to the God who called them to serve the Lord’s purposes. Just as the Temple will be restored to its former glory, so will be the people be brought back home:

They shall be carried to Babylon and remain there until the day when I visit them, declares the Lord. Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place.

Jeremiah 27:22

It is difficult to understand a God who gifts men and women with freedom yet bends them to divine purposes. While the creature acts with freedom, human actions can be orchestrated by God in order that the will of the Lord God be done on earth as it is determined in the courts of heaven. The prophet Jeremiah provides an explanation to account for the fact that the finger of God can write, as it were, the script for human affairs:

It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and the animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.

Jeremiah 27:5

The glorious reading from the letter to the tiny house-church Paul founded in Thessalonica today offers us a phrase that requires a lifetime of meditation:

you have been chosen.

I Thessalonians 1:4


Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 96:1. 3-5. 7-10.R/ v.7

R/.Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day. R/.

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens. R/.

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts! R/.

Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
he will judge the peoples with equity. R/.

Sing to the Lord a new song! Yes, indeed. But don’t copy almost all your lines from other people’s songs. Psalm 96 is a new song woven from many old songs.

Translations, however, can sometimes betray even the old songs. The translation of the second verse above is,

tell of his salvation from day to day.

A very strict word-for-word translation would reveal,

gospel from day to day his victory

or

proclaim every day the good news of his victory.

Thus the psalm not only fills our hearts with joyful praise. It reminds us of our duty to sing the song to the world, to proclaim the gospel of God, the Lord of all creation, to all the earth’s peoples.

There is a strong reminder that when we come to the Lord’s holy place, we must,

Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness.

Our liturgy, in its words and actions, must be such as reflect the glory of our God. When we sing our Gloria, let it be known that we honour the God whose presence is among us. In listening to his word we must again and again know that all peoples are ruled by God’s righteousness. We must know and sing to the world that God can do no other. The very being of God is righteousness, justice, utter fidelity to the wellbeing of creation and its people. That is a new song; it is ever a new song. The very heart of God is the heart that shepherds the world. It is a heart of love that gladdens even the fields, entrances the trees of the forest, delights the sea, and even reaches to the heavens in joyful praise.



A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 1:1-5

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonian
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters, loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.

The word of the Lord.

These are precious words. Readers and hearers of the opening greeting introducing St. Paul’s first letter to Christians in the city of Thessaloniki are blessed with a great blessing. The letter of Paul to Christians in Thessaloniki is the earliest of all the 27 pieces of writing that make up our New Testament. Paul founded a church there. From there he went to Corinth in southern Greece and from there wrote what we read today. This precious document was written in 50 or 51 A.D. Written just 20 years after the death of Jesus, it reveals how far the gospel of God was reaching into the world. It is a very profound document, yet intended for a very young church of Christians.

The city of Thessaloniki (Thessalonica) is a old city, today the second most important Greek city after Athens. Rome’s expansion eastwards established the importance of the city by building through it the great Roman road, the Via Egnatia, stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea. Thus the ancient capital of Macedonia was transformed into a city of great military and commercial importance.

Like every city and large town in the Roman Empire, Thessalonica was home to an elite wealthy class, the power bloc ruling a population made up of powerless artisans and slaves cramped into tenement buildings. The pagan gods worshipped in the city were as much political entities as religious figures. Allegiance to the local gods provided unity of sorts. Jews were generally allowed to worship their own God but that was always at the discretion of the imperial powers and local administrators of that power.

The first people that Paul converted to belief in Christ Jesus and the God he served were pagans, not Jews. Notice this sentence from Paul:

… you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead,

I Thessalonians 1:9-10

Obviously, Jewish people did not worship idols.So in reading Paul’s letter we must be aware that he is writing to people who had come from paganism and who turned their backs on pagan gods that also happened to be the official gods of the elite wealthy power bloc in the city. For the most part, these people would have been illiterate depending on someone in this house-church who could read.This does not mean a wealthy person.The only reader in a household might be a slave.Reading and writing were professional qualifications. It is likely that a few from the wealthy classes turned to faith in the preaching of Paul and these people would have provided accommodation. Most people lived in one room tenements.Paul was well aware of the social conditions of his little churches, as we can see clearly from his letters.


Faith, hope and love

The letter comes to these brave new Christians from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. The little gathering of converts in the large city of Thessaloniki is “the church”. In the seven authentic letters that come to us from the hands of Paul and his co-workers, there is no reference to the Church, with a capital C, indicating the Church throughout the world, the Universal Church. The letter to Ephesian Christians (whoever wrote it) is earliest document to speak of the Church, meaning the Church scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The church for Paul and his companions was always the little communities growing up in the eastern Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Asia Minor and all the way to Rome. You must realise that the profound theology we meet in these letters was written for your parish, indeed, for Christians who had no buildings and who met together in someone’s front room.

The authority in the church of the Thessalonians is God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The little people who huddled together to hear the word and to break the Bread and sup from the Cup were in God and so in the Lord Jesus. They were transfigured into the embrace of God, people ordained by baptism, in order to be proclaimers of the gospel of God.

The first instinct of Paul and his co-workers (notice: we give thanks …) was to turn to God in thanksgiving for the wonder that has happened by God’s grace in Thessalonica. Notice what is written in the very first sentence of a report of Christian prayer that we know of in the whole world. Paul and his companions report that they are constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father,

your work of faith.
your labour of love,
and your steadfastness of hope
in our Lord Jesus Christ..

Faith, hope, and love! Already this tiny little church, yesterday’s pagans, are renowned for their faith, hope, and love. This is the first record of these three virtues together in the Bible. Paul will go on to sum up these three as whole meaning of Christian existence for the little churches in Corinth and for all Christians everywhere:,

… faith, hope, and love abide,
these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

I Corinthians 13:13

The love of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ is such that it cannot be directed solely to heaven. To be embraced by God’s love and to love God in return, must not only, as it were, go up. Such love must go out. Therefore Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy know and proclaim that these ex-pagans are brothers and sisters loved by God. It is being loved by God that creates a humanity brothers and sisters, the most binding but least acknowledged of human relationships both in the world and in the Church.


Chosen by God

Paul and his companions have travelled hundreds of miles from Antioch to Thessalonica, proclaiming the gospel of God in towns and cities. But these wonderful people did not come to God because of Paul’s preaching, powerful as that surely was. It was not mere words. The gospel came to them in the power of God in the Holy Spirit. The conviction of the truth of the gospel did not come from human eloquence. The gospel’s power came to the world the strength of God.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:15-21

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle [Jesus in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.

The Gospel of the Lord.

This is surely one of the better known of all the incidents in our Gospel. It is told in Mark 12:13-17, in Luke 20:19-26, and in our reading from Matthew today. In Mark and Matthew it is the Pharisees and some Herodians who raise the issue of paying taxes to Caesar.[2] Luke has the scribes and chief priests sending spies to set a trap for Jesus by tempting him to say something seditious and thus cause him to be handed over to “the authority and jurisdiction of the governor”.

From Matthew 22:15 to the end of the chapter Matthew has assembled four conflicts between Jesus and eminent authorities. The first is the conflict over paying taxes to Caesar orchestrated by the Pharisees and Herodians. The second is the dispute with the Sadducees about resurrection from the dead. The third is a debate with a Pharisee who happened to be a lawyer, an expert, therefore, in the code of Law instigated by Moses in his meetings with God on Mount Sinai. The fourth argumentative encounter is with the Pharisees, this time instigated by Jesus and concerning the identity of the Messiah and his future mission to “gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”.

Remember that Matthew has gathered these disputes together and placed them in the context of the last days of the life of Jesus. These four disputes clarify some of the issues that cause the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to seek the death penalty for Jesus.

That is why Matthew is so careful in setting the scene for this devious encounter with Pharisees and Herodians. He is careful to bring together religious and political authorities in order to stitch Jesus up, to give their intention to have Jesus put to death a gloss of legality. There is a flattering recognition that Jesus is a teacher, indeed, one who truly teaches the way of God. Then the hypocritical Pharisees spring their dangerous question:

Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?

Aware of their malice and their hypocrisy, Jesus demands to see the special coinage with which the tax is paid.

Tax is never a popular civic duty. The tax in question in Matthew’s story is the Roman capitation or poll tax, the so-called “census” tax (κηνσος, kēnsos) that was imposed on Judea when it became a Roman province in 6 A.D. This was widely resisted and led to the creation of underground movements intent on throwing off Roman rule. This tax was a major cause of the Jewish revolt against Rome that broke out with such disastrous results in 66 A.D. This tax had to be paid with a Roman coin that usually bore an image of the emperor and an inscription advertising his divine nature. If Jesus approved of the tax, he would incense Jewish people. If he opposed it, he would incur the wrath of Rome. By asking to be shown the taxation coin Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of Pharisees. If they were carrying the coin around in their pockets, and especially in the Temple holy grounds, they were proclaiming their acquiescence in the rule of Rome. The reply of Jesus was subtle in that it exposed these two-faced Pharisees and avoided incriminating himself. And so we are left with a politically correct solution that also acknowledges the authority of God:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.

Politicians and Religious Authorities, from that day to this, have been happy with the answer that Jesus gave, skilfully undoing the trap set for him and formulating a principle of Church/State relations that enables peaceful co-existence.


An alternative view

Who is this God worshipped by faithful Jewish people, in good times and bad? Who are these people for whom faith was always on life’s agenda so that even the sinners among them knew the God they did not believe in? Or, at least, who were those Jews whose self-interests chose to ignore the God revealed to Abraham and Moses and to the whole people who were gathered around Mount Sinai?

These are the words spoken in every generation in order to insist again and again the bond between the God of Israel and the People of Israel:

For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.

Deuteronomy 4:32-35

Who did not sing the songs of faith that David sung:

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.

This is the God, the Lord, whose name was sung from one generation to the next:

On the glorious splendour of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

Psalm 145: 1-7

The greatest of the prophets spoke a warning to those who walked in the ways of the faithless and who did not hear the voice of God speaking through the prophets from generation to generation,

For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord,
and there is no other.
I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness …

Isaiah 45:18-19

No matter how faithless a son or daughter of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was, no matter how distant their lives were from the truth of faith, these children of God knew who it was they had profaned.

So can we imagine a Jew or Jewess, in their heart of hearts, recognising Caesar Augustus to be a god, or that monster Tiberius, or that maniac Caligula? Or Claudius who expelled every Jew from Rome? Or Nero who murdered his mother and fiddled as Rome burned? Or Vespasian and his son Titus who, in the Jewish War (66 A.D. - 73 A.D.), crucified many thousands of Jews, demolished God’s Holy Temple, and destroyed the Holy City of Jerusalem, bringing thousands into slavery into Rome.

Is it possible that a Jew such as Jesus would recommend sharing God’s authority with the likes of these? [3]

I suggest that no Jew, Pharisee or Sadducee, experts in the Law of God, or poor folk such the widow-woman who put her two ha’pennies into the Temple treasury, would so far deny their faith as to recognise the divine authority of Rome.

When Jesus said,

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,

every Jew who had ears to hear knew that nothing belonged to Caesar. They would know, from their mothers’ knee, that everything belonged to God. Every word of their Holy Scriptures emphatically insist that God created the heavens and the earth and gave only stewardship of God’s good earth to humanity. God did not sign over ownership to men and women, and most certainly not to the Emperor of Rome or to any other upstart potentate who sought to invade the heavens and sit on God’s throne. With delicious irony and a heart and mind of faith, Jesus declared what he learned at his mother’s knee. The inhabitants of this earth must,

… render to God the things that are God’s …

Everything.[4]


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.



[1] The fictional comic story of Esther is set in the Persian imperial court. Esther’s victory is celebrated (raucously) on the Feast of Purim.

[2] Herodians would seem to be those who supported the House of Herod as legitimate authorities (under Rome) over Palestine. God only knows what Pharisees were doing associating with that unholy lot. Herod the Great (the identified as king in Matthew’s Magi story (Matthew 2:1-12) murdered 10 members of his own family.

[3] Visitors to Rome can seethe Titus Arch, celebrating the man who destroyed Jerusalem (it is beside the Coliseum).It pictures Jewish captives in chains, soon to flood the slave markets in the city.

[4] This day might be a good day to re-read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si on humanity’s stewardship of our planet.