By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Response: Psalm 96:1, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10; Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21
Our first readings have been leaning heavily on the Book of Isaiah the Prophet. Today’s liturgy takes us into the second part of Isaiah called Deutero (or Second) Isaiah found in chapters 40-55.
Second Isaiah, whose name is unknown to us, is exceptional in that his message is totally upbeat. His people, the Israelites/Jews have been in exile in Babylon (Iraq today) from the early years of the sixth century B.C. down to about 540 B.C., when this prophet comes upon the scene as God’s cheerleader. He is a keen observer of events. The Persian army under its king, Cyrus the Great, has been on the march. The so-called Neo-Babylonian Empire is near collapse. Cyrus conquers its capital in 539 B.C. His foreign and domestic policy is to send home the nations taken into exile by the Babylonians. Cyrus was especially interested in having them rebuild the temples to their gods so that their gods would bless him. The Jews were among those exiled peoples. In 538 B.C. Cyrus issued the Edict of Return — permitting the exiles to return to what was formerly the Kingdom of Judah with its capital city Jerusalem. A copy of the Edict is in the Book of Ezra (1:2-4).
Such is the background to the first reading, which is about Cyrus. Second Isaiah proclaims praises of Cyrus in unexpected ways. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped.” So here we have a worshipper of the chief Persian god Ahura-Mazda commanding that “whoever is among you of all his people . . . let him go up to Jerusalem and rebuild the house of the . . . God of Israel.” In Cyrus’ mind the gods should be able to tolerate each other without jealousy. In fact, the better interpretation of Cyrus’ Edict is that his own “god of heaven” commanded him to get the house of the Lord God of Israel built in Jerusalem. Seems like a heathen-inspired ecumenical movement. Second Isaiah attributes the success of Cyrus to the Lord God of Israel, “making kings run in his (Cyrus’) service, opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred,” (which happened at Babylon, whose citizens opened the city gates to Cyrus and his army). The Lord God of Israel has his own reason for using Cyrus in this way, “for the sake of Jacob (Israel), my servant, my chosen one.” Second Isaiah wants to make sure that his own people understand that the good news happening to them is not from the good will of some Persian god, but from the Lord God of Israel. Therefore, “I am the Lord, and there is no other. There is no God besides me.” The selection of this reading was determined by its theme of the benevolence of the Persian king, as today’s gospel speaks of the power of Caesar, the Roman Emperor. Not an exact parallel but it will do.
The Responsorial Psalm 96 picks up on a theme of the first reading, attributing to the Lord the good fortune of the exiled Israelites, as the people’s response sings, “Give the Lord glory and honor.” It is a Psalm of total praise without any petition for benefits to the people. The Psalmist becomes so enthusiastic that he envisions even the trees of the woods joining the people praising the Lord. The second reading begins a series of readings from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, a city in Greece, (Macedonia). This letter is our oldest Christian document, 49 or 50 A.D. Paul includes his missionary colleagues, Silvanius and Timothy, in addressing this Christian community he founded on his second missionary journey. Today’s reading is only the introduction to the letter. To get their attention, Paul flatters them, “calling to mind your work of faith and labor and love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “The hope of our Lord Jesus Christ” refers to his and their hope that Jesus would soon return. As the letter develops in the liturgy of the following Sundays, we will hear about problems raised by this belief.
On the past three Sundays the gospel consisted of successive parables of Jesus through which Matthew attacked his own and the Christian community’s rivals in religious and political matters. One may imagine the rivals as leaders of the Jewish synagogue across the street from the Christian gathering place in Antioch, Syria. Today the scribes try to catch Jesus in some kind of a misspeak. Their attempt is phrased as a question: whether or not to pay taxes to the Roman Empire which had been overlord of the Holy Land since 63 B.C. First they flattered Jesus, claiming that he never yielded to pressure from anyone but always spoke the truth. Then the question: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” They thought they trapped him into an answer that would get him into trouble either with the Roman government or shake the confidence of the people who believed in him. Jesus saw through the trap. “Why are you hypocrites testing me?” Why hypocrites? They were not engaging with him in a serious debate about a legitimate quest-ion of conscience but to trap him into a self-incriminating answer. Hypocrite is a favorite name of Matthew for his religious rivals. He uses it eight times in his gospel to address them.
Jesus demands, “Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” They produced a Roman coin called a denarius. On one side of the coin was the image of a woman holding a branch symbolic of peace. Under the seated woman was the inscription, pontifex maximus, the official title of the chief priest of Roman pagan religion, and in Jesus’ time, a title of the emperor. On the reverse side, an image of the current Caesar with the inscription “son of the divine Augustus.” Caesar Augustus had been deified (canonized?) by the Roman Senate after his death in 14 A.D. Jesus asks them, “Whose image and whose inscription?” They answer: “Caesar’s.” Jesus replies, avoiding or voiding completely the trap they set for him, “Then give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God.” The word “image” is loaded. Graven (engraved) images were forbidden by the Torah of Moses. These religious-minded Jews were carrying a graven image with an idolatrous inscription. Thus a more profound meaning of hypocrite. More importantly, Jesus gave a politically incorrect answer by distinguishing between God and Caesar, being as truthful as his flatterers had hypocritically said he would be.