In the world of mathematics you will be hard pressed to find a two sided object in geometry. In order to create a shape with sides, at least three sides are required. Despite this truth, people try in vain to reduce various things to only two sides – left and right, black and white, and the like. The readings for this Sunday point out the complexity of our world while at the same time showing forth the simplicity of God. The issues of church and state presented here are not to be viewed through a political lens, but rather with the eyes of faith that present a deeper vision than the two dimensional perspective of polemic.
The first reading from the prophet Isaiah presents us with the figure of Cyrus, king of Persia. Known in the ancient world as being a ruthless leader, we nevertheless encounter a positive image of him in the biblical text. However, the prophet also reminds us that political power does not lead to divine status, a common failure of ancient monarchies and empires. Kings are dependent upon God for their success just as everyone else. Even a ruthless person such as Cyrus can make decisions favorable to the people of God, a lesson we might reflect upon in our American political climate of demonization.
At first glance one might get the impression that the passage from Paul has little connection to the other readings. However, Paul is the first to use the term “gospel” to refer to the message of Jesus. This Greek term had been employed by the Roman emperors in referring to the edicts and decrees they handed down to the subjects of the empire. The emperors, who thought themselves divine, saw their words as being good news for their people. Paul, however, uses the term to refer to the message of Jesus – that message of Jesus is that which is truly good news for all. What is more, this message is not merely words as were the decrees of emperors, but the message is also mighty deeds of power and the Holy Spirit. Hence, it is not political power but rather divine power that gives authority to the gospel of Jesus.
The gospel text is well known to us, but often it is used as a defense of the separation of church and state instead of its original intent of correcting our attitudes toward political power, God, and money. Two groups come to question Jesus on whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar: the Pharisees opposed Roman occupation and thus would take a negative answer to the question, while the Herodians who favored Roman rule would prefer Jesus to answer in the affirmative. Each sought to trap Jesus so that he would be in trouble with one or the other. Jesus’ answer dumbfounds his audience – both then and now.
What truly belongs to Caesar? Money – something of little importance and clearly a man-made object. What belongs to God? Everything! What do we have that does not come from God? Nothing! God has given us our world and our very being, and these things are what we owe to God. Yet, we always hold something back from God, much like Cain. Matthew’s readers would know all too well the conflict that this scene presents to them. On the one side they are faced with pressure from the Jewish synagogue to conform to the prevailing Jewish theology and reject Jesus as Messiah. On the other side they face the pressure of the Roman Empire in forsaking Jesus for the cult of Caesar. In both cases the worldly security of money comes forward as the pressure point used to bring about conformity.
In our own day we have many who would co-opt the Gospel in creating political pressure upon the followers of Jesus. We will be told by various people that voting in a certain way is the authentically Catholic way of the Gospel, and others will tell us that we must defend America as a Christian nation. Failure to conform to these folks will lead to exclusion and rejection. Yet, the psalmist today states that the Lord is king, not Caesar; and that our true homeland is heaven, not America. This does not mean that we do not engage in the political arena, but we must do so based on Gospel values that cannot be translated into a political platform and that cannot be embodied fully in any one candidate or political party.
As we seek to make God the Lord of our life, we ask for his constant help in the words of today’s opening prayer: “Let us pray for the gift of simplicity and joy in our service of God and man. Almighty and ever-living God, our source of power and inspiration, give us strength and joy in serving you as followers of Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”
Jude Huntz is Director of the Human Rights Office for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.
Daily Scripture Readings
For complete daily Scripture texts, click here: www.nccbuscc.org
Monday, October 17
Luke 1:69-70, 71-72, 73-75
Tuesday, October 18
2 Timothy 4:10-17b
Psalms 145:10-11, 12-13, 17-18
Wednesday, October 19
Psalms 124:1b-3, 4-6, 7-8
Thursday, October 20
Psalms 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6
Friday, October 21
Psalms 119:66, 68, 76, 77, 93, 94
Saturday, October 22
Psalms 24:1b-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 23
Psalms 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
The full text of the Scripture readings for this week and next week can be found here: www.nccbuscc.org/
Click on the “Readings” tab at the top of the page.