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Sunday Scripture: Give to God what belongs to God

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October 16, 2011

By Timothy P Schehr

Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 45:1-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21

Some Pharisees apparently thought they had a really good plan to get Jesus in trouble with the emperor of Rome. They had been irritated ever since Jesus told that parable about the vineyard, ending with the news that God would take the kingdom away from them and given it to others more capable of providing a rich harvest.

 

Their plan is to ask Jesus what He thinks of paying taxes to Caesar. If He disapproves, He will get in trouble with the Roman authorities and perhaps even be arrested for advocating rebellion. If He approves paying the tax, it may weaken His popularity among people who felt the tax was oppressive. They try to mask their true intent by presenting themselves as real admirers, impressed by the Lord’s selfless devotion to God.

 

Jesus immediately sees through their display of respect. He demands they show him a coin. They produce a Roman denarius, a coin not very common in Palestine where locally minted shekels were the more usual currency. The fact that they have such a distinctively Roman coin at all seems to affirm the Lord’s estimation of them as hypocrites. The Roman denarius typically displayed a portrait of a Roman emperor, perhaps Tiberius in this instance, with an inscription describing him as the son of the divine Augustus. With the Roman coin in full view, Jesus states the obvious: they should return to Caesar what belongs to him.

 

But Jesus is not finished. He takes full advantage of this teachable moment to challenge them to give to God what belongs to God. Now it is their turn to come up with a good answer. Since they claim to be experts in the Law of Moses they must know it demands love of God and love of neighbor. Are they giving to God what God expects of them? Jesus is their neighbor. If they are seeking to undo Him with a trick question, are they really putting love of neighbor into practice? If the Lord’s detractors are truly listening they will hear in His response an invitation to embrace the values of the kingdom of heaven. Such values would include service to God and loyalty to the covenant.

 

The prophet Isaiah would have appreciated the Lord’s lesson, especially the clever way He shifted attention away from the rulers of this world and toward the kingdom of heaven. Isaiah knew all too well the pretensions of earthly rulers. In the first reading, Isaiah records the achievement of Cyrus the Great, the most powerful ruler of his day. Cyrus conquered cities and founded an empire. Isaiah knows that whatever this Persian king accomplished it was done by the grace of the Lord God of Israel. For all his successes, Cyrus was really nothing more than a participant in the plans of God for God’s holy people. By God plan, Cyrus encouraged the exiled Jews to leave Babylon, return to their homeland, and rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. Psalm 96 encourages the people to sing a new song the Lord. They must certainly have felt like singing when they got the news they could go back to their homeland.

 

In his letter to the faithful in Thessalonica, where he preached the Gospel for the first time after crossing over from Asia Minor, Paul gives thanks for their constant devotion to the things of God. He wants them to know the real credit for their spiritual successes does not belong to him but to the Holy Spirit who led him to them in the first place and who opened up their hearts to the Gospel. All that matters to Paul is that God’s plan is moving forward. Paul is definitely giving to God what belongs to God.

 

Father Schehr is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

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