By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Response: Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10; Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21
The first reading is taken from a section of the Book of Isaiah called Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah. The oracles of this prophet are contained in chapters 40-55. These chapters are known as the Book of Consolation. His message is totally upbeat, filled with hope. He begins, “Be consoled, my people, be consoled! Speak tenderly to Jerusalem (the exiles). Her iniquity is pardoned.” This prophet’s ministry takes place with his fellow-Israelites exiled in Babylon (Iraq today) between the years 550-540 B.C. Several waves of exiles were taken from the Kingdom of Judah beginning in 598 B.C. The main exile occurred in 587-586 B.C., after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army. He was aware of political events. Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, was on the march. Babylon was near collapse. As Cyrus and his army approached Babylon, the citizens opened the gates. Part of Cyrus’ policy allowed exiled peoples to return to their homelands to rebuild cities and temples. He had a special interest in rebuilding temples. Thinking all gods more or less equal, they were expected to bless Cyrus if he encouraged the building of their temples. In 538 B.C., Cyrus issued an Edict of Return for the exiled Israelites (Jews). A copy of the edict is found in the Book of Ezra 1:2-4 and 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.
In today’s reading, the prophet proclaims the praises of Cyrus. He dares to call this worshipper of heathen gods “the anointed of the Lord,” whose right hand the Lord has grasped. Picture the Lord shaking hands with, or leading by the hand, this worshipper of Ahura-Mazda, the creator-god of Zoroastrianism. To proclaim foreign rulers and armies agents of the Lord God was not new (See Isaiah 5:26 and 7:18-19). Second Isaiah notes that the Lord God makes kings run in the service of Cyrus, that he opens gates and doors before him, that he is “My Chosen One” for the sake of favoring the Israelites. In the oracle, the Lord himself admits that Cyrus does not even know him. To make sure, however, that there is to be no confusion between the Lord and heathen gods, he decrees, “I am the Lord and there is no other. There is no god besides me. I am the one who arm you, so that people from east to west may know that ... I am the Lord. There is no other.” The prophet is addressing his own people through this oracle to assure them that it was not a Babylonian god who exiled them and is now rescuing them. It was the Lord who did it and will do it.
Psalm 96 is similar in tone to Isaiah’s oracle. The Israelites are encouraged to sing a new song to the Lord. All lands are invited to join the chorus, to tell the Lord’s glory among nations, his great deeds among all peoples. Like the above prophet, the Psalmist insists that only the Lord God is to be praised, since the gods of the heathens are nothing. “Give to the Lord the glory due to his name. Bring gifts. Enter the courtyards of his temple. Wear your best clothes. The Lord is king and governs all peoples with fairness.”
The second reading is taken from the opening lines of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. This letter is the oldest complete document in the New Testament. It was written 49 or 50 A.D. Paul includes the names of his missionary colleagues. He founded this Christian community on his second missionary journey — his first venture into Europe. He captures their attention by extended flattery, but ends with a reminder that his visit to them was in power, and in the Holy Spirit and much persuasion. This prepares them to heed the advice he will give in the letter.
Matthew’s series of encounters between Jesus and his opponents continues. On one level, in the time of Jesus, the opponents are the temple hierarchy and scribes, who are usually Pharisees. On a second level, in the time of Matthew 50 years after Jesus, the confronted opponents are the great scribes who became the spiritual leaders of Judaism after the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Therefore, when Matthew writes that the Pharisees plotted how they might entrap Jesus in his what he said, he means the scribes of Jesus’ time and the scribes of his own time. Matthew voices his ultimate denunciation of the scribes of his time in Matthew 23. For now, however, we go to the gospel of this Sunday. The scribes, accompanied by the hangers-on of the royal house of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, approach Jesus first with flattery, noting that he is not swayed by human opinion or anyone’s status, but speaks the truth as God sees it. Therefore, is it lawful to pay the tax the Roman occupying government imposed since a census in A.D. 6 on every person in the Holy Land from age 12 or 14 until age 65? If Jesus says “Yes,” they will make certain to ruin his reputation among those who admired and loved him. If he says “No,” he will be in trouble with the Roman government. That was the trap. How will he escape from it? Jesus is aware of their conspiracy to trap him. He addresses them, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites?” It should be noted that “hypocrite” is Matthew’s favorite term for his own opponents.
He uses it 13 times in his gospel, compared to Mark’s gospel using it only once. Jesus demands to see the Roman coin which was used to pay the tax. They produced it. He asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They respond, “Caesar’s.” At the time the Caesar was Tiberius. Jesus then spoke his verbal “gotcha:” “Then give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God.” There is more to this answer than meets the eye. First, Jesus distinguishes between Caesar and God – dangerous because, after the death of Augustus Caesar, the Roman Senate proclaimed him a god. Secondly, the inscription on the coin referred to Tiberius as the “son of the divine Augustus.” So here are these religious scribes carrying a coin proclaiming a Roman god. Thirdly, the word “image” in Jesus’ response hides another problem. Graven (engraved) images were on both sides of the coin. Yet, the second commandment forbids graven images. Fourthly, Jesus turned the discussion into a spiritual challenge to his opponents to be concerned about their duty toward God. Matthew adds, “They were amazed and went away.”