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Features \ Asia - Liturgical Reflections

XXIX Sunday, Oct 22, 2017

Isaiah 45:1, 4-6  1,  Thessalonians 1:1-5,   Mt 22:15-21 

 Anecdotes: 1) “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Perhaps we can illustrate all this with one case, that of St. Thomas More, the English martyr who was councilor to king Henry VIII and Lord High Chancellor of England. Robert Bolt dramatized More’s conflict – regarding what is Caesar’s and what is God’s – in the drama A Man for All Seasons. Recall the story. King Henry VIII of England is validly married. He appeals to Rome to annual the marriage. But there is no honest basis for annulment. Rome refuses. Henry takes matters into his own hands, declares himself Head of the Church in England and remarries. He then orders his friends and officials to sign a document declaring that they agree he acted rightly in the matter. Many of More’s friends sign, but More refuses. Henry demands that he sign or face arrest, trial for treason, and execution by the state. More refuses. He had two obligations, one to God and one to his country. When they conflicted, More had no choice but to remain faithful to his obligation to God. On his way to public execution in 1534, More encouraged the people to remain steadfast in the Faith. His last recorded words were: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Today’s Gospel reminds us of our dual citizenship. We are citizens of the world and citizens of Heaven. We have an allegiance and an obligation to each. We hope the obligations will never clash. But if they ever do, we must resolve them as Thomas More did, without compromise to our God or to our conscience. (Mark Link in Sunday Homilies).

Introduction: The common theme of today’s readings is the nature of our obligations to God and to our country. The readings show us how, with God’s help, we can be ideal citizens of both earth and Heaven. 

Scripture lessons summarized: In the first reading, Isaiah the prophet foretells how, indirectly, the policies of the great Persian Emperor Cyrus will help   God's saving plan for His chosen people.  Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 96) reminds us that when people put God's Kingdom first, everyone benefits.  In the second reading, Paul praises his converts in Thessalonica for their fidelity to God and to Christ His Son, “our Lord Jesus Christ,” and for their practice of the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity with the help of the Holy Spirit.   In the Gospel, Jesus escapes from the trap in the question, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” by stating, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” With this answer, Jesus reminds his questioners that if they are so concerned and careful about paying taxes to the state, they should be much more concerned and careful about their service to God and their obligations to Him as their Creator and Lord. We fulfill our duties to our country by loyally obeying the just laws of the State and working for the welfare of all citizens. We become Heavenly citizens by obeying God’s laws.

The first reading (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6) explained: The Cyrus mentioned here is Cyrus II, the Great, who founded the Persian Empire. In 539 B.C., he conquered the Babylonians who had defeated the Jews 50 years earlier and had taken many of them into captivity. He decided to liberate the Jews from their exile and allow them to go back to their home country, Judea. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah declares that Cyrus, even though a pagan, was God's instrument.  The amazing fact is that God actually used Cyrus to restore His people to their homeland.  God is able and willing to use ungodly powers to achieve His ends because He is the God not only of the Jews, but of history and of the whole world. Hence, He anointed Cyrus as a savior of His people.  Cyrus carried out God's plan by setting the Jewish exiles free and giving them permission to go back to Judah to rebuild their Temple and city.  He also   returned to them the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple.  So a pagan emperor became, in God’s hand, the instrument by means of whom the people of Israel might return to their Promised Land.  This passage also contains a new theological idea.  To call this pagan king, “Messiah” or “Christos” meaning "the Lord's anointed" (a title given exclusively to the kings, prophets and priests of the Chosen People), was quite revolutionary. 

The Second Reading, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5 explained: Bible scholars believe that this letter, addressed to the new Jewish and the Gentile Christians of northern Greece (Thessalonica), is the earliest document of the whole New Testament, written in Corinth in A.D. 50. There was more Faith, Hope and Charity among the Thessalonians than Paul could credit to his own preaching; the Holy Spirit was clearly at work.  Along with 1 Thes 5:8, this is the earliest mention in Christian literature of the three "theological virtues" (see 1 Cor 13:13). From today's text it is clear that these people worked hard at being Christians and that Saint Paul thought that praiseworthy.  Hence, he praised his converts for their fidelity to God and to Christ and assured them of his prayers.  He hoped that they would continue to be faithful to the call God had given them, a call proved by the many gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed on them. 

Gospel Exegesis: The context: The Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians were the three prominent Jewish sects of Jesus’ day.  The Pharisees were rabid nationalists and totally anti-Roman while the Herodians were willing to collaborate with the Romans, hoping to benefit from them.  Together with the chief priests, these three groups accused Jesus of “associating” with sinners and challenged his authority to teach in the Temple.  The three “parables of judgment” were Jesus’ calculated reply to their accusations.  After the first two parables, "the chief priests and the Pharisees ... realized that he was speaking about them" (21:45-46).  Hence, they resumed their counter-attack in an attempt to destroy Jesus' influence with the people, either by discrediting him in the presence of the crowds or by causing him to make statements that would get him into trouble with the Romans.  The question put to Jesus in verse 17 is actually the first in a series of four "test questions" recorded in Matthew 22:15-46.  Besides today's question on the legality of paying taxes, there are other questions:  Jesus' opinion on the details of the resurrection (vv. 23-28), what the greatest commandment is (vv. 34-39), and the relationship between the Messiah and David (vv.  41-45).  

The tax issue: The Jews were forced to pay three types of tax to the Roman Emperor: the ground tax, the income tax and the census tax. Here, the question concerned the census tax.  A census tax implied that, if one were a citizen, one owed the money to the Emperor.  The Jews believed that they had only one Lord and Ruler and that was their God.  Taxes, or any form of submission, should be made to Yahweh alone.  Hence, the question which the Pharisees asked Jesus was intended to create a very real dilemma for him. If he said that it was unlawful to pay the tax, the Herodians and their allies would report him to the Roman officials, who would then arrest him as a revolutionary.  If he said that it was lawful to pay the tax, the insurgents and their supporters would turn against him and he would be discredited in the eyes of the people who were against paying taxes to a pagan emperor.  In other words, to state that tax should be paid would have made Jesus appear a traitor to his country, while a denial would have left him behind the bars as an enemy of Rome.

 Defense as Challenge: Jesus defeated their scheme by asking his challengers to show him “the coin of tribute” – the coin they would give to the tax-gatherer.  In those days, all secular money was thought to belong to the Emperor. [The Temple had its own coinage, not used in paying secular debts.] Thus, the Emperor’s image was on each secular coin.  The money belonged to him and   he simply permitted people to use it.  By actually having a Roman coin in their possession, complete with Caesar's image and Caesar's inscription, the challengers had already shown where their loyalties lay. They had, in effect, answered their own question.  Jesus, rather than answering their question directly, asked them a question, thus turning their trap inside out and upside down: “Whose image (eikon in Greek) and inscription are these?” (The census tax was paid with a denarius coin, which contained the image of the Emperor on one side with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus”—and on the other his title “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest).  Thus, Caesar claimed not only political sovereignty but also divine attributes.  Therefore, they considered the image idolatrous and the inscription blasphemous).  “Caesar’s,” they said.  Jesus then said, "Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar -- and to God what belongs to God."  In other words, we give to the Emperor the coin because his image is on it, and we give to God our own selves because we are created in the image of God (Gn 1:26).  Jesus’ answer acknowledges our obligation as citizens to the state, but affirms our larger obligation to God.  Both the state and God require certain loyalties from us, but we owe God our very lives.  The question Jesus was asked could have been phrased, “Whose side are you on?  Israel’s or Rome’s?”  Jesus’ answer was “On God’s side!”

Dual citizenship and dual obligations: By birth we become the citizens of the country of our birth, and by Baptism we become the citizens of Heaven.  In every age, Christians are faced with balancing the demands of Caesar with the commands of God. Jesus’ answer forms the guiding principle in solving the problems that arise from our dual citizenship, belonging to God and to our country.  As Christians, we are to obey the government, even when it is pagan and non-Christian.  A loyal Christian is always a loyal citizen.  Failure in good citizenship is also failure in Christian duty.  We fulfill our duties to our country by loyally obeying the just laws of the State, by paying all lawful taxes, and by contributing our share, whenever called on, toward the common good.  Both St. Peter (1 Pt 2:13-14), and St. Paul (Rom 13:1-7), stressed the obligation of the early Christians to be an example to all in their loyalty as citizens of the state. Similarly, we fulfill our duties to God by being faithful, loyal, active members of the spiritual Kingdom of God, the Church, which Christ established on earth.  Thus, a real Christian is at one and the same time a good citizen of his country and a good citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, but his priority is his allegiance to God.  As the famous martyr St. Thomas More said of himself: "I die the King's good servant, but God's first."  Cooperation with secular authority cannot interfere with our primary duty of "giving back to God" our whole selves, in whose image - like the stamp on the coin - we are made.  Consequently, we give taxes to the government but we give ourselves to God. 

The modern approach: As citizens in a multicultural, multi-religious country we respect other religious traditions.  We take care not to mix religion and politics.  Americans tend to see in Jesus’ answer an argument for the separation of Church and state.  But such an idea made no sense in first-century Mediterranean culture.  It is true that there are times when the demand for the separation of Church and state appears to leave our civil life without moral direction.  But the experience of two thousand years of political history since the time of Jesus makes it clear that mixing the two jeopardizes civil liberty as well as religious freedom.  In a democracy, the citizens do not serve the state -- the state serves the people.  The elected government officials are public servants.  Hence Christians, like other citizens, are free to criticize their government, to seek to change its policies, to remove office-holders whose representation is invalid, and to seek new benefits and protections for the welfare of the people.  Our political liberty also secures our freedom from religious tyranny and unwonted political interference in religious matters.  

There is no reason why the state and the Church cannot work together to improve the lives of their citizens.  There is usually no conflict -- unless the government forces people to act in a way contrary to God’s law.  Then we must act in accordance with God’s law and not man’s because, while the state only exists in this world, God’s law exists in this world and the next. This means that sometimes we have to refuse to obey our government.  In South Africa's apartheid system, many Christians were forced to violate the immoral laws of their government.  In the United States, both the black and the white people violated the segregation laws of many states.  Wherever there is immoral or unjust behavior, there has to be conflict, which paves the ground for society’s progress.  

Life messages: 1) “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: How?  Like it or not, it’s a reality that our ancestors created the kind of government that relies on a portion of its citizens’ income to function.  Hence, it is the duty of Christians to pay for the services and the privileges that government provides –- like paved roads, police and fire departments, banks, schools and other necessities.  If we refuse to pay taxes, how will these needs be fulfilled?  Another way of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s is to participate actively in the running of the government, electing the most suitable candidates and influencing them through frequent contacts.  Third, we must submit to the civil authorities and respect the laws of our country in order to live in peace.  As loyal citizens, we must also see to it that our elected representatives are faithful in maintaining law and order in the country and in promoting the welfare of its citizens.  When the state oversteps the mark and puts itself in the place of God, Christians are, as a last resort, absolved from obedience.  We must give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and not the things that are God's.  We must “obey God rather than human beings.” 

2) Give to God what is God’s.” How?  Since everything is God’s, we must give ourselves to Him 100%, not just 10% on Sundays.  We should be generous in fulfilling our Sunday obligations and find time every day for prayer and worship in the family, for the reading of the Bible and the proper training of our children in Faith and morals.  St. Augustine teaches that when we truly succeed in "giving to God what is God's," we are "doing justice to God."  This requires that we return to God, with dividends, that which God has entrusted to us, remembering that we are mere managers or stewards of God’s gifts.  Every year, we are invited to make the stewardship pledge of our financial offering to the local Church for the coming year.  Our contribution to the parish Church   should be an expression of our gratitude to God, giving back to God all that he has given us.  This will help us to combat the powerful influence of materialism in our lives and enable the Church to do God’s work.  Our cash offerings signify our commitment to the ministries of the Gospel, the activities of the Risen Lord.  Every pledge enables and empowers ministry.  Every pledge, every dollar, touches a human life and brings it closer to God.  Every pledge, every dollar given, is transformed into love for someone else and for ourselves.  Active participation in the various ministries of the parish is the offering to God of our time and talents, yet another way of giving to God his due, our whole self.  

3)  Check your heart’s investments: When Jesus says, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's," the command really asks us whether we have invested our heart in the right place, in something worthy of our life's blood, something that will yield a return that's worthy of a whole human life. There is only one way to find out where our hearts are. Let us check our daily choices, the little ones as well the big ones, and look for the patterns: What do we usually do when decision time comes for where we will spend our prime time and our best energies? These are the infallible indicators of what we truly value, and what we don't. Whose image do others see when they look at our life? When people see us, do they see Jesus engraved upon us? To the extent that they do, they make visible the extent to which we belong to the Kingdom of God. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

17/10/2017 13:25