(Ordinary Time – Cycle A)
Is 45, 1.4-6
1Thes 1, 1-5b
Mt 22, 15-21
God is the Lord of history: this could be the synthesis of the biblical message of this Sunday. The prophet Isaiah proclaims the majesty of God that surpasses the limits of Israel. Any man can be chosen by the Lord to become the instrument of salvation that is not a simple human achievement or realization but a gratuitous gift from God (first reading). The apostle Paul praises God for the quality of Christian life of the Thessalonians that permeates history with an act that is not determined only by human will but inspired and moved by the Holy Spirit (second reading). The Lord Jesus, with excellence and ability unmasked the hypocrisy of those who question Him and proclaims the religious horizon of relationship with God, liberating it from the subtle ethical-juridical distinctions that placed God at the same level of man (Gospel). God is the only Lord.
The first reading (Is 45, 1.4-6) belongs to the anonymous prophet, known as Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah (Is 40-55), who, during the time of the exile, raised the hope of the people and announced the joyful return to the land. In Chapters 40-48 of the book, he announces to the exiled the liberation from the dominion of Babylon, while in Chapters 49-55 he seems to address himself to the second group of those who return to their land and undertake the restoration of the country.
The oracle that we read in the liturgy today constitutes one of the more surprising prophecies of the book. From the Babylonian exile the prophet speaks to the exiled in order to illumine and strengthen their faith in the only God, Lord of history. The prophet refers to King Cyrus, the Mede-Persian monarch who had conquered the empire of Babylon, calling him “messiah of the Lord” (anointed), whose “right hand God grasped” (v. 1). The text celebrates the great victories of King Cyrus, who “subdued nations before him, and making kings run in his service” (v. 1).
Cyrus, with his famous edict of the year 538, had started a new international politics. Unlike the centralizing old empire of Babylon that practiced putting entire peoples into exile, Cyrus prefers to promote the autonomy of the various ethnic and national communities that composed the Persian empire. Thanks to this new international politics the Jewish people can return to their land and rebuild the nation. The people of the Bible historically owes to Cyrus, king of Persia, their having the possibility to return to the promised land and to restore the structures of the country.
The prophet sees in this action of Cyrus the powerful hand of God who directs the history of the peoples. What is new in the oracle is that it proclaims as instrument of liberation a pagan and foreign king who did not know the God of Israel, the only God. In effect, the Lord tells Cyrus: “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” (v. 5). The expression “though you know me not” is repeated twice, at the end of v. 4 and at the end of v. 5. Despite the religious ignorance and the absence of faith in the Persian king, God used him to fulfil his plans, thus revealing himself arbiter of history and of time.
The text is important for different reasons. In the first place, because it is a good example of a reading of history illumined by faith: in the midst of historical vicissitudes, faith discovers a providential plan of God. On the one hand, here is the level of the facts read objectively and explained with the help of human sciences, the level of chronicle and of historiography; on the other, here is the prophetic gaze that discovers the presence (or the absence) of God and his liberating plan in the events of human history. Biblical faith does not deny any of the two readings, but neither does it confuse them. Secondly, the text demonstrates that the biblical believer should not compare the human kingdoms with God’s Kingdom. The latter is realized and reaches its plenitude like “leaven” or a “small mustard seed” in the midst of the events. The believer cannot live disinterestedly of the facts of history and of the situation of the world, since it is through them that the saving power of the Lord of history comes and is manifested. But he should not also dream of a human order that is expressly and completely subjected to religion, in a kind of “theocratic structure” of the world. Faith illumines history but it does not deny its autonomy (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 36).
The second reading (1Thes 1,1-5b) constitutes the introduction of the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, the oldest writing in the New Testament. In these verses the Apostle makes a short description of the mystery of the community, seen both in its human and theological aspects. There are three principal theological affirmations of Paul: (1) The Christian community is primarily God’s work: “we know, too, brothers beloved of God, how you were chosen” (v. 4). (2) The evangelising action that builds the community is not founded on words, but in the manifestation of the “action of the Holy Spirit” (v. 5). (3) Those who form the community commit themselves to live according to the three theological virtues: an active and effective faith, a mature and efficacious charity, and a constant and strong hope (v. 3).
The Gospel (Mt 22, 15-21) takes up again the theme of the first reading on the relationship of the believer with the history and the temporal realities. The Pharisees and the Herodians approach Jesus with a question to put Him to the test, questioning Him about the legality of paying or not the tax to Rome, the imperial power to which the small province of Judea was subjected in those years (vv. 15-17). For the Jews of the Palestine of the 30’s, the question of the of the tax to the emperor involved a political and religious problem. To pay the tax to Caesar was a clear sign of subjection to a foreign power. This absence of political autonomy posed to Israel at the same time a religious problem since through the tax the emperor of Rome, a pagan king, claimed a way of recognition and of “cult” which to the eyes of the Jews was idolatrous and perverse.
The cunning question of the Pharisees and the Herodians: “Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not?” (v. 17) had the clear objective of making Jesus fall into a trap, if he would criticise the authority of Caesar or accept to pay the tax to Rome. In the first case, if Jesus had criticised openly the authority of the emperor, he would have faced directly the empire through a pro-Roman political position, in open contrast to the religion of Israel and the way of thinking of the great majority of the Jews of his time.
Jesus escapes the insidious trap, passing from the ideological level of the Pharisees and the Herodians to the practical level, in which the religious decision that has to do with relationship with God is placed. The Pharisees accept with difficulty the occupying Roman power but reject the armed struggle proposed by the Zealots. The Herodians, on the other hand, support the local authorities placed by the Romans and accept the imperial power, even if they also oppose the armed struggle of the religious fanatics. Jesus places Himself at another level and makes that the dialogue pass from the ideological level, centred on the discussion of the legality of the tax to the emperor to religious decision, affirming the whole and total commitment to God as the only Lord.
Following the technique of the controversy, Jesus poses another question to them about a fact that is apparently banal but which in its firm evidence does not allow any type of ideological sophism. Jesus accompanies His words with a gesture, after the manner of the prophets of old. He takes a coin on which the image of the Roman emperor is inscribed, and asks: “Whose head is this and whose inscription?” (v. 20). When they answered Him that on the coin is the image of the emperor, he invites them to give to the emperor what is his and to God what corresponds to Him: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s” (v. 21).
The conclusion of Jesus is clear above all when we separate its two elements. The Herodians were in agreement with the pragmatic option of paying the taxes to the emperor, but precisely for this that they appear as collaborators of the Romans to the eyes of the Zealots. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were in agreement with acknowledging the principle of fidelity to God as the only Lord. The Zealots, for their part, deduced from this principle the need to reject the tax and to fight the occupying Roman power. The originality of the response of Jesus is in the act of combining the pragmatic option of paying the tax to Caesar with the religious option of fidelity to God.
Jesus in a certain way rejects the Caesar or God alternative. For Him, the Roman emperor and God are not of the same level. At the same time, with His words, Jesus refers clearly to the fidelity and total self-giving of man in his relationship with God. We could say, using the language of today, that Jesus respects the autonomy of the political power, but at the same time affirms implicitly that the political structure (represented in this case by the Roman emperor) can never be placed at the level of God, it cannot be deified.
The exit of Jesus is brilliant. In the first place, Jesus recognises the legal autonomy of the civil power, rejecting any theocratic dream. God is not presented as an alternative to Caesar. God is at another level very different from the Roman emperor. God is the Lord of history and the Lord of every person, created in His image. At the same time, Jesus teaches that no political power, no government, no “Caesar” of this world can make itself “god” and “lord of man”. The tyranny of the dictatorial powers and the injustice of the political structures that threaten man and set themselves as masters of history, try to occupy the place of God and seize His sovereignty over man.
What belongs to Caesar, in the immediate context of the discussion is clear: money, symbol of the political and economic power. What belongs to God is affirmed clearly by the biblical tradition: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt 6, 4-5). The total love and self-giving of man to God, the only Lord, do not admit compromises or divisions with any other lord or power of this world. One must give to God, only to God, what belongs to God, since the Caesar, no Caesar of this world is God.
The texts of today illumine an important aspect of the Christian life: the relation between faith and politics. Naturally the theme is much wider and will always demand reflection and discernment from the Church in every historical situation. What is clear is that the Word of God this Sunday invites us to overcome two temptations: the “theocratic” temptation and the “spiritualist” temptation. The first is manifested in the lack of recognition of the autonomy and legitimacy of the social and political realities; the second in the intimate and egoistic attitude of one who renounces to commit himself at the social level to justice and peace. The Word of God invites us today to see the history and the structures of this world with an attitude of faith. Only faith will let us discover the presence of God in the midst of the events of the world and to always give to God what is God’s.