For the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21.
In the Word and Gospel of the Lord today it could seem the Lord practices strange politics.
First, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord speaks to a pagan, the Emperor Cyrus.
The Lord calls the pagan his anointed, which is the meaning of the Hebrew messiah.
Even though Cyrus the pagan emperor did not know the Lord, the Lord anointed him, strengthened him and gave him victory over the nations.
The Lord tells us why.
so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, there is no other.
The strange politics are that the Lord gives victory to pagan governments in order to make himself known everywhere.
In the Gospel today, the Lord Jesus indirectly upholds the demands of the pagan Roman emperor, Caesar.
The Romans had invaded and conquered God’s people, and demanded of them the payment of taxes to Caesar.
As was Cyrus long before, was Caesar also an anointed of the Lord?
Was it the Lord and the Lord’s plan that gave Caesar victory over all the lands around the Mediterranean Sea?
Western and Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa— they had all fallen to the might of pagan Rome.
Did God do that?
Did he do it to make his name known over all the lands?
In a strange and historic way, it may seem that is what happened.
The same Roman Empire that persecuted the Christian faith also became the instrument and the geographical extent of the Christian faith.
Is God doing the same thing now?
Whether good or bad, are modern governments anointed by God and victorious because of God?
If so, it is only so that God may make himself known.
We believe in God.
What does God want us to do?
What is our role towards God and towards Caesar?
As far as what a believer is to do for Caesar, the question comes to the Lord Jesus today from members of a strange alliance.
The Pharisees were a religious movement of Jews who hated paganism and foreigners.
The Herodians were a political party of Jews who cultivated the favor of pagan Rome.
The Pharisees hated the Herodians, but the Pharisees hated Jesus even more.
The Pharisees enlisted the Herodians today to try to trap Jesus between the law of God and the law of Caesar.
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
Lawful— the Pharisees are talking about God’s law.
Does God want us to pay taxes to the pagan government?
We’ve already noted that God is willing to use pagan government for his own glory.
Government benefits us.
Our government builds our sewers, provides us our water, builds our roads and highways.
It’s good to pay taxes— at least some of them.
Does our government INTEND to work for God’s glory?
Does God work for his own glory through our government or any government, good or bad?
Yes, whether we like it or not.
Does God ALWAYS work THAT way?
We cannot say ALWAYS.
We are trapped by not knowing ALWAYS how God is working.
He is always at work, but we just don’t always know how.
The question of the Pharisees and the Herodians is a trap for the Lord Jesus.
If he said that God’s law forbade paying taxes to pagans, then the Herodians could haul him off for Roman punishment.
If he said it was in God’s law to pay the pagan taxes, Jesus could have lost the favor of the people, and possibly have received a stoning.
The answer of Jesus?
Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Hypocrites, because the mutually self-hating Pharisee-Herodian alliance was not really concerned with God’s law.
Their alliance was concerned with trapping Jesus.
Jesus refuses to be trapped, and he really does not answer their yes-or-no question.
Instead, he tells them that whatever bears the government’s image and inscription belongs to the government.
In a real way, the answer of Jesus was not fair.
In order to pay taxes to Caesar, the Jews had to buy Roman coins from Caesar’s mint, and use only those coins to pay the tax to Caesar.
The conquered people were losing out twice.
These were taxes imposed by a foreign, idolatrous enemy.
Part of the unavoidable meaning of Jesus answer was to submit to unjust government.
What about the other half of his answer?
Then repay… to God what belongs to God.
Then what belongs to God?
Anything that bears God’s image and inscription belongs to God.
In the beginning… God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
Being Godlike is built-in for us.
We are deceived by sin, but nonetheless we are in the image and after the likeness of God.
The image was washed, renewed and polished in Baptism and the Anointing of Confirmation.
Then, here in the Eucharist, God the Son joins us in flesh and blood.
Because of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist by which we take and consume the Lord himself, his words in his Gospel today plunge into the depths of our being.
Whose image is this and whose inscription?
To repay to God what belongs to God is to serve the glory he has shared with us.
It’s just that sin has made it difficult for us.
Sin deceives us into thinking that we can find joy apart from God.
In the end we shall have no joy at all apart from glory and God.
The road there may be a taxing effort.
It is nonetheless the road to freedom, joy, and glory.
The second reading from the Word of the Lord today reminds us it is our mission to embrace the glory of God within us, calling that embrace:
your WORK of FAITH and LABOR of LOVE and ENDURANCE in HOPE.
Turn. Love. Repeat.