Sunday Scripture Readings

twenty-ninth sunday

in ordinary time,

october 20

Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96;

1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21

OUR GOOD NEWS: We're called to be committed Christians first, and good citizens second. Today's first reading is remarkable on at least three counts. First, God's word was addressed in literary fiction to Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia. It declared him recipient of extraordinary blessings from a God he neither acknowledged nor worshiped. Second, the text reveals a breathtaking theology of history. From a political point of view, Cyrus was a rare instance of the right man in the right place at the right time. Through calculated gambles and uncommon good luck he became ruler of the world's largest, most powerful empire. Finally, God's purpose lay hidden behind the seemingly meaningless rise and fall of kingdoms, resettlement of national groups and struggles motivated by greed and ambition. All this takes place so that the whole world may "know" - experience personally, acknowledge - that Yahweh alone is God, alone rules as absolute Lord over all creation. In today's Gospel, Pharisees and Herodians, normally implacable enemies, joined forces to eliminate Jesus. The former dispatched self-righteous disciples, cocky young men who would pose a major dilemma in contemporary Jewish ethics. The imperial tax caused a serious conscience problem because it was paid directly to the reigning Caesar in acknowledgment of his absolute authority. But Jews received their homeland as a direct gift from God; he was the only ruler they could acknowledge without blaspheming. Advocating payment of taxes would discredit Jesus among patriotic and religious Jews. On the other hand, anyone encouraging non-payment would be summarily eliminated by occupation forces. Surrounded by a crowd, Jesus faced this seemingly hopeless dilemma, but he responded with masterful strategy. He first publicly called their bluff. Instead of seeking spiritual direction they wanted to discredit Jesus as a Roman lackey or engineer his arrest. By offhandedly asking for an official coin he proved their hypocrisy. Pious Jews avoided carrying the Roman denarius with its idolatrous portrait and title of the reigning emperor as a god. Out-Phariseeing the Pharisees, Jesus scrupulously avoided looking at the graven image. "You who compromise yourselves by possessing such a coin, look and tell us who are more religiously observant: Whose face and name are these?" Jesus' solution was to "give it back" - property should be returned to its owners. Those doing business within the imperial politico-economic system were expected to support it. We look in vain for profound solutions to church-state tensions and problems. And yet Jesus laid down a crucial basic principle. Cooperation with secular authority cannot interfere with our primary and overriding duty of "giving back to God" our whole selves, in whose image - like the stamp on the coin - we are made. In sum, civil laws normally solidify God's will, binding in conscience. But if in conflict, we withhold obedience, regardless of cost.

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