Religion and politics are a volatile mix, such that the old dictum was, these were the two topics one should not raise in polite conversation.
The readings for this Sunday are concerned, in part, with the interaction of religion and politics, in the rule of God vs. the rule of men. The Scriptures affirm that despite appearances to the contrary, ultimate control of human history is in the hands of God. Human rulers have their place, but even they are ultimately instruments by which God guides human affairs. In the midst of the chaos that is human politics, we cannot become distracted from the true goal of human life, which is union with God.
The First Reading is taken from the second part of Isaiah: Is 45:1, 4-6:
Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before him,
and making kings run in his service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,
I have called you by your name,
giving you a title, though you knew me not.
I am the LORD and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun
people may know that there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, there is no other.
This passage of Isaiah is directed to the people of Juduh in the post-exilic period, after Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonian empire c. 537 B.C. and began to reverse the policy toward conquered peoples that had been pursued by the Babylonian monarchs. The Babylonians attempted to pacify conquered peoples by displacing them from their homelands and destroying their particular cultures. Cyrus, on the other hand, thought that keeping subject ethnic groups happy (and paying their taxes) was a better way of assuring peace within a multi-national empire. So Cyrus, after capturing Babylon itself c. 537 B.C., began to send exiled nations back to their homelands, in particular the Jews back to Judah.
Whatever political intentions Cyrus had in mind, his actions were ultimately part of God’s providential plan to restore the Jews to their homeland. That is the point of our Reading. Cyrus may not have had any real acquaintance with the God of Israel, but he unwittingly served God’s purposes. This is a theme throughout Scripture, going back at least as far as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, to whom God once said, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, to show my power in you, that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Rom 9:17). Pharaoh’s hardness of heart unwittingly served the purpose of provoking ten plagues which demonstrated God’s power over the gods of Egypt (Ex 12:12) and over the cosmos, leading to religious awe of the God of Israel through Egypt and Canaan. Much later, Nebuchadnezzar unwittingly served as God’s agent of punishment for his recalcitrant and rebellious people, leading them off to exile (cf. Jer 27:8). And now, Isaiah foresees Cyrus’ more lenient demeanor as yet another manifestation of God’s control over world affairs.
At any given time, it is often very difficult to perceive any “method to the madness” of world politics, much less to see the hand of God there. It truly does require a supernatural insight, a prophetic perspective. Nonetheless, God’s word insists that the affairs of men are ultimately in the hands of God, and that even rebellion against him will ultimately serve his purposes.
Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10:
R. (7b) Give the Lord glory and honor.
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R. Give the Lord glory and honor.
For great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
awesome is he, beyond all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are things of nought,
but the LORD made the heavens.
R. Give the Lord glory and honor.
Give to the LORD, you families of nations,
give to the LORD glory and praise;
give to the LORD the glory due his name!
Bring gifts, and enter his courts.
R. Give the Lord glory and honor.
Worship the LORD, in holy attire;
tremble before him, all the earth;
say among the nations: The LORD is king,
he governs the peoples with equity.
R. Give the Lord glory and honor.
This Psalm comes from Book IV of the Psalter (Pss 90-106), a tightly-unified book that reflects in a systematic way upon the mystery of Judah’s exile and the collapse of the Davidic monarchy, which had been guaranteed by a covenant oath from God. The period 587-537 B.C. was a truly dark and trying time for the people of God, as their capital, temple, and king had been removed, and they found themselves as a captive minority in a foreign land (cf. Ps. 137). Book IV of the Psalter seems to reflect theologically on this time of testing, and gives several constructive responses. In response to the question, “What shall we do now that the Son of David is no longer king?”, Book IV seems to answer, “Exalt God as King!” And so it does, since several of the Psalms in this book echo the refrain, “Our God reigns!” or a similar sentiment. Psalm 96 calls the people of Judah, who are now living among the nations, to call the foreigners among whom they dwell to give glory to the LORD, who is the creator of the whole world. It’s possible that the joyful mood of Psalm 96 reflects the happy news that Cyrus had permitted the return of the Jews to their capital: this was a great and unexpected blessing. “Among all peoples tell his wonderful deeds!”
This past week we recalled anniversary of the apparitions of Fatima, including the miracle of the sun, that was witnessed by tens of thousands of people, both believers and non-believers. Surely great saving deeds like this deserve to be better known throughout the world: “Say among the nations, Our God reigns!”
Our Second Reading is 1 Thes 1:1-5b:
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you,
remembering you in our prayers,
unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love
and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,
before our God and Father,
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God,
how you were chosen.
For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.
This opening of Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians warms our heart with its display of the affection that characterized the relationships of Christians in the early Church. They lived out our Lord’s words, “They will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Paul, Silas, and Timothy pray constantly for the young Church in Thessalonica, giving thanks to God for their faith and their perseverance through trials. Paul describes how they received the Gospel “not in word alone,” but “in power and with the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.” This reminds is of “the universal call to holiness,” which is nothing but a recovery of the Gospel call for every believer to seek perfection (Matt 5:48). Christian teaching should not be merely head knowledge, nor a noble ideal discussed in seminaries and schools of theology, but a powerful reality in daily life. The Gospel gives the power of the Holy Spirit for people daily to be faithful to their spouses, to say no to drugs and porn, to wake in the middle of the night to change a diaper, to forgive their co-worker, to pray for the unborn. Holiness in daily life is actually possible because of the gift of the Holy Spirit which convicts us of sin and empowers us for righteousness.
The Gospel is Mt 22:15-21:
The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”
We have an unholy alliance here between the Pharisees and the Herodians, two groups that usually were at odds with one another. The Pharisees were professional religious scholars who wanted all Jews to follow their understanding of how to live out the law of Moses. The Herodians were political animals who had thrown in their lot with the dynasty of the Herods, a kind of “Realpolitik” movement. The power of both were threatened by Jesus, this politically incorrect teacher from Nazareth, who wouldn’t say the right things in public.
They try to trap Jesus in a political dilemma during a public interview, much like TV interviewers try to entrap politicians they don’t like with a no-win political question. In this case, the Herodians and Pharisees figure there is no right answer Jesus can give to their question about paying taxes to Caesar. If Jesus says, “It is right to pay taxes,” they will go around spreading the news that “Jesus supports this tyrannical Roman regime with all its human rights abuses. Haven’t you heard how the Romans brutally suppressed that slave uprising! Yet Jesus says we should support this regime with our tax money!”
On the other hand, if Jesus says “It is wrong to pay taxes,” they will immediately report him the Roman governor Pontius Pilate: “Don’t you know you have a renegade teacher from the back hills of Galilee going around Jerusalem telling people not to pay their taxes?” That would be certain to get Jesus arrested and put away for good.
But Jesus was more than a match for their political machinations. The meaning of his response, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” can be understood like this: “If you are going to participate in the Roman currency system and benefit from it, you must also be willing to play by its rules.” Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were wealthy and benefited from the pax romana. In particular, the Roman government permitted the Jewish government in Jerusalem to tax all expatriate Jewish subjects living in the Roman Empire an amount consisting of about two days wages per year, for the support of the Temple. Since there were millions of Jewish subjects living in the Empire, this resulted in an enormous annual influx of cash to Jerusalem and its environs, greatly enriching the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and other groups. Jesus calls out the Pharisees and Herodians for their hypocrisy: they are only two happy to let the Empire collect taxes for the Temple, but will they refuse to pay the Empire’s taxes to Caesar, whose authority (and legions!) keep them in power?
But there is a deeper message in Jesus’ words. “Render to God what is God’s,” he says. Caesar’s image is stamped on coins, but according to Gen 1:26 & 28, the “image and likeness of God” is stamped upon each human person. Therefore, our whole selves—everything we have and are—belong to God, and should be a gift to his service.
This, too, the Pharisees and Herodians failed to see. They were more concerned about maintaining their social and political power than about being devoted to God. And we, too, fall into the same trap. It is a mistake, for example, to give our lives fighting for political causes—even good ones—to the neglect of our souls and the souls of others. After all, even if we had a perfect government, it would not lead to eternal life for every human being. Even if some kind of ideal democracy and a stable economy was present in every single nation of the world, and all laws were just and everyone treated equally, it would still be possible for everyone to be estranged from God and wholly focused simply on the material pleasures of this life. Politics are important, and bad politics can severely hamper people’s ability to worship God and seek a life in communion with him. The affirmation of the First Reading and Psalm are that human politics are ultimately under the direction of God. Yet for all that, the goal of human existence is not the perfect earthly society, whatever that might be thought to look like. The goal of human existence is union with God the Father, Son, and Spirit. And only Jesus Christ is “stamped” with the “face of the Father,” only he reveals to humanity that God is our Father and provides us the way to be united with the Father in perfect communion for eternity. This is the Gospel, the message of eternal life. How sad it would be if we spent all our efforts in this life giving people physical bread but never the bread of everlasting life!