Saturday 21 October 2017

Sunday, October 22, 2017 - God and Caesar

To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thes 1:1-5b; Mt 22:15-21

There are times when we wish that certain incidents narrated by the evangelists, in which Jesus speaks, would have been omitted. The Gospel text of today is one such incident. This is because, if taken out of context, the saying of Jesus to the Pharisees and Herodians “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”, can be used to justify the clear division that some are wont to make between the sacred and the secular and to divide these into two autonomous realms. Others may interpret the saying as a call to unswerving loyalty and obedience to “secular” authority.

The first reading, however, makes clear that loyalty and obedience are always to the Lord though it may seem, at first glance, that it is a human being who is responsible for the salvation of people. Thus, though it was through the Persian king Cyrus that the Jews in Babylon were given their freedom, he was but an instrument in the hands of the Lord. It was God who guided him to disarm other kings and to open the gates of freedom by “grasping his hand”. The whole world must be made to see that it was the Lord and the Lord alone who brought liberation.

This is why, in his response to the Pharisees, Jesus goes beyond the question asked by the Pharisees and adds that what is God’s must be given to God. This does not mean a separation of religion and politics, but rather that the kingdom of God embraces every aspect of human life. Ultimate loyalty is always to God and the kingdom rather than to narrow and parochial political interests.

The question of the Pharisees is not a general question. That they intended to trap him through his answer is clear when one realizes that the tax referred to was the “census”. This was the Roman head-tax which had been instituted when Judea became a Roman Province. Payment of the tax was a burning issue and the tax could be paid only in Roman coinage. A “Yes” answer on the part of Jesus would alienate the nationalists who were against paying the tax. A “No” answer would probably lead to the arrest of Jesus by the Romans. Ironically the Pharisees, who considered the image and inscription on the coin idolatrous, have a coin and that too in the sacred precincts of the Temple. In principle, that Pharisees resented and rejected the payment of the tax but would not go so far as to physically oppose it. Though Jesus’ answer is an indirect “Yes” .he makes clear by the addition “and to God the things that are God’s” that God always has first place. While material things may be given to the Caesars of this world, the human person belongs only to God. If one rendered to the state its restricted due, all the more was one to render to God his unrestricted due, namely, the totality of one’s being and substance, one’s whole existence, was to be rendered to God. Loyalty to Caesar must always be set in the larger context and thus be relativized by the full submission of the self to God. The bottom line for the disciple of Jesus is to “render to God the things that are God’s” Since the human person bears the image of God he/she cannot be given to Caesar, but only to God.

The Psalmist reiterates this theme in his invitation to all peoples to give glory and honour only to God, since he alone is God. He is the one who made the heavens and is king of all peoples. The Lord alone must be worshipped and no one else. The worship offered to the Lord is one offered in holiness. His governance is a governance of equity.

When we are aware that we are made in God’s image and that everyone we encounter is made in God’s image we may feel less inclined to separate ourselves from each other. Yet it is equally important that we retain our identity as children of God whether we are functioning as members of our household, our workplace, our neighbourhood, or our city or nation.

As committed Christians we are also obliged to look into the faces of our neighbours and see God, especially when we are tempted to see those neighbours as aliens. The Holy Spirit can work with us and through us when we do not separate ourselves from that image, as he did in the life of Paul and the Christians of Thessalonica. We then render to God our very selves in obedience and service, which will in time touch all we have and own.

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