29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21
We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.
Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ. But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon. The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims. This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.
But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC. Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history. Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation. His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history. But God is still God, and the only God.
The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne. Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.
Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).
Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless. We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s. For we were created in God’s image. If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to? Who rules over our lives? God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians. Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives. They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.
Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state. That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day. It’s not about paying taxes. That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors. We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question. In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week. It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.
The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men. It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God. It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us. To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.
But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ. Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.” The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.” And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.