First reading: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95(96):1, 3-5, 7-10.
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5.
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21.
Link to readings.
Uniting the readings this week is the issue of Christian responsibility to the state.
This issue, emerging from the Gospel, has presumably prompted the choice for the First Reading, Isa 45:1, 4-6, where the non-Israelite ruler, Cyrus of Persia, is portrayed as God's chosen instrument for the liberation of Israel from exile in Babylon.
Granted the attitude to foreign rulers normally displayed in the Old Testament, this presentation of Cyrus is really quite striking. Just before this passage (44:28), he has actually been called 'my shepherd', a title and a role otherwise reserved for Israel's own kings. What the prophet wants to bring out is that, while Cyrus, as conqueror of Israel's Babylonian captors, is her liberator on a political and military level, at a deeper level he is merely the instrument of Israel's God, now understood to be sole God of the entire universe. Israel's real liberator from her Babylonian Exile, as from her former Egyptian slavery, is the Lord her God.
While this is the what the text principally asserts, implied is also the significant-and for its time, novel-truth that behind foreign rulers, as behind Israelite ones, stands the power and authority of God. This not simply the case in a punitive sense, as when such rulers become instruments of divine chastisement, but also in a saving sense, as is the case here with Cyrus. The positive portrayal of a non-Israelite ruler in this text paves the way for the episode related in the Gospel.
Traditionally, the question put to Jesus in the Gospel, Matt 22:15-21, concerning the legitimacy of paying taxes to the Roman Emperor, has been the occasion for addressing Christian responsibility to the state. Taken in itself, however, the main point is not to present Jesus giving an instruction on this issue. We are at a point in the Gospel where Jesus, having entered Jerusalem as its messianic king, is engaged in a power struggle with representatives of various groups who, under the overall control of the Romans, currently wield authority in the city. They, rightly, perceive the threat posed by Jesus to their hold upon the people and seek to bring him down. They want to portray him as dangerous to the Romans and also to lessen his authority with the people by getting the better of him in public dispute.
The tax question offers a perfect stratagem to achieve these ends. It proceeds from an unlikely alliance between Pharisees (who, in general, would be hostile to paying taxes to Rome) and the Herodians (who, on the contrary, represent the chief collaborators and instruments of the Roman occupation). If Jesus supports the payment of the highly unpopular poll tax, he will lose standing with the people. If he rejects payment, he runs the risk of being identified with groups (such as those later known as Zealots) who were in more or less perpetual rebellion against Rome, and so of appearing as a significant threat to peace and public order.
Jesus' majestic response not only frees him from the dilemma but actually goes on the offensive against his adversaries. By calling for them to produce a coin with Caesar's image on it he shows them up as people who carry around the offensive coinage, something he does not himself do. In this sense, they are revealed as already collaborating whereas his own position is not disclosed.
Then his dual 'Render' instruction throws back the dilemma upon them. They had set the issue simply in terms of obligation to Rome; they had not brought God into the equation at all-though they would claim to be religious authorities. Jesus takes possession of the religious and moral high ground by setting responsibility to the civil power (which he does not deny) within the broader and higher framework of obedience to God.
It is difficult to derive from Jesus' response any clear indication of his attitude to the Roman military occupation. Certainly, he distanced himself from the kind of Zealot fundamentalism that required absolute theocracy in the name of God-a religious attitude all too resurgent in our world today. His followers, especially as portrayed by Luke (Gospel and Acts), would commend a peaceful and loyal existence within the Roman Empire so long as allegiance to Christ Jesus and the Rule of God had priority (Acts 5:29). The later Christian sense of the separation of Church and State has its origins here, along with the recognition that believers have responsibilities in both realms that oblige in conscience before God.
The Second Reading, 1 Thess 1:1-5, features the opening words of what is generally held to be the earliest document in the New Testament. Note the triad-faith, love and hope in Paul's commendation of the community.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media