Saint Vincent Archabbey
29 Ordinary Time
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time,
This gospel about paying taxes to Caesar is the first of a set of three passages in which Matthew describes how hostile religious leaders of his day attempt to trap Jesus with trick questions. The incident about paying taxes together with the following exchanges about the resurrection and about the greatest commandment indicate a growing conflict which will eventually result in Jesus execution under the Roman government.
After offering some flattering remarks about Jesus being a truthful man who teaches the way of God, the Pharisees lay their trap by asking "Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
If Jesus replies that the tax should be paid, he will lose the esteem of the majority of his fellow Jews, oppressed as they are by a foreign, pagan government and army. If he rejects payment of the tax, he will be arrested and executed for instigating a rebellion.
Jesus, recognizing the malicious intent of the questioners, asks them for a Roman coin that would be used to pay the tax. When they produce the coin with Caesar's image on it, he says to them: "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." They are reminded that they themselves have God's image impressed on them, and must repay to God what belongs to God -- that is, their entire being.
A life implication of this incident in which Jesus outwits his opponents is suggested by the entire context of Matthew's gospel.
Matthew begins his gospel by telling us about the birth of Jesus in fulfillment of what the Lord had said through the prophet, " they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us' " (Mt 1:22-23).
This is the good news Matthew proclaims: In Jesus Christ, God becomes part of our world in a new way -- beyond the presence through creation, beyond the presence through the prophets.
In the scene with the Pharisees, we see that Jesus is involved in the realities of the political and religious situation of his nation and his people. He knows what?s going on. He is not intimidated by power. He calls his adversaries hypocrites to their face, and then beats them at their own game. As Emmanuel, he will continue to "teach the way of God in accordance with the truth" even though he knows the result will ultimately be his arrest and execution.
Matthew concludes his gospel, and at the same time extends it into the future with the promise of the now -vindicated Risen Lord: "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . . make disciples of all nations. . . . and behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Mt 28: 18-20). Jesus, in a new way, continues to be Emmanuel, "God with us."
To be a Christian disciple in our time and place means to actualize God?s presence and rule as Jesus did in his historical time and place. This means that a disciple ought to know what?s really going on, without illusion.
Although it may not happen in the extreme circumstances of Mt 10:16-25, it is hard to avoid the life implication that a disciple of Jesus at some point will be faced with the moral necessity of speaking the truth in an adversarial confrontation, regardless of the consequences.
The assurance that Christ keeps his promise to be "God with us" ought to save us from being intimidated, even if it's just writing a "letter to the editor" about a controversial issue. And with a little work on our part, we may even be able "to teach the way of God in accordance with the truth" with some of the poetic flair and wit of Christ. That special presence of Christ's spirit would be a nice gift to pray for in this Sunday's liturgy.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.
29th Sunday of the Year,
Today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah gives us a lot to consider. It mentions Cyrus, a 6th century B.C. Persian king, describing him as the "anointed" of the Lord. Cyrus was quite a figure in the ancient middle east, conquering many other kingdoms and ruling over an enormous area; he is also mentioned in the books of Ezra and 2 Chronicles. The Hebrew word describing Cyrus as "anointed" is meshiach, which we recognize more in its English form "messiah." The fact that Isaiah applies the term "messiah" to a pagan king might strike us as surprising since we normally think of it in association with Christ. Isaiah thus strongly underlines God's sovereignty in employing whichever human agents he chooses in history. he reading goes on to indicate the uniqueness of the Lord "there is no other god" and the unstoppable nature of his messiah. In Isaiah's day, that was Cyrus, and later, it is Jesus Christ, "Christ" also meaning "anointed." Isaiah also emphasizes that God will send as his messiah whomever he wishes, even a pagan like Cyrus, and that the Lord is not like other earthly kings and need not conform to such expectations. God and his agents must therefore be accorded a respect and reverence which is far beyond what the people accord to their self-appointed heroes.
This picture becomes clearer in the Gospel where Jesus, the definitive messiah of Israel, is confronted with a trick question by the Pharisees and Herodians. Just as many people in Old Testament times thought they had the messiah figured out, and the pagan Cyrus had no part in their vision, so too the Pharisees and their friends thought they had the messiah "pegged," and Jesus was not part of their picture.
As a result they tried to dispose of him with an insincere question intended to indict him either in the eyes of the common people or of their Roman overlords.
The Pharisees think that there is no way out, and in strictly human terms there was not: it appeared that Jesus had to either seem to grovel before the hated Romans by consenting to the payment of the census tax, or he would be easily subject to denunciation and arrest as a dishonest tax cheat. But Jesus transcended this human logic and responded according to his own will. He showed his opponents that the messiah did not need to fit their expectations, and that it is God who governs his people, not the other way around.
We all fall into the Pharisees' way of thinking at times, either fashioning God in our own image and likeness, or thinking that the Lord's anointed is accountable to us: "I prayed, but did not receive what I asked for!?
The truly remarkable thing is that through the incarnation God does take on our human image and likeness and makes himself accountable to us of his own free will. This is a divine condescension that proves that messianic power is truly made perfect in weakness?in contrast to the grasping for power of the Pharisees, or to Cyrus' earthly might. This Sunday God's messiah is presented to us in all his glory and humility in both the scriptures and the Eucharist. Let us rejoice not that Jesus outwitted the Pharisees and Herodians, but rather that he offers the true anointing of salvation to all who come to him, and invites us to share in it through the breaking of the bread.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.