First Reading: Isaiah 45:1, 4–6
Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,In this first reading we encounter the figure of Cyrus, King of Persia, who famously liberated Judah from Babylon and allowed them to return to Palestine in the latter part of the sixth century B.C. It is impossible to doubt the strength of Cyrus and his empire. Yet the prophet is clear that Cyrus’s success was ultimately due to God’s deeper providential purposes in human history, purposes that are here described as his covenantal fidelity to his chosen people of Israel.
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before him,
and making kings run in his service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,
I have called you by your name,
giving you a title, though you knew me not.
I am the LORD and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
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.
In particular, it is clear that God has chosen both Israel and Cyrus in order to make clear that he alone is the true God and King of the nations, for beyond the rise of Cyrus and the fall of Babylon is the Lord of history and the true King of the nations. This leads nicely to the responsorial psalm, for in her worship the covenantal people of God gather to acknowledge the true King of the nations, thereby uniting liturgy and politics in a rather public manner that at first blush should strike us moderns as quite alien.
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
R/ (7b) Give the Lord glory and honor. Sing to the LORD a new song;In Psalm 96, the Psalmist calls on Israel to lead the nations in worship of the one and only God, to declare his glory among the nations. While the gods of the nations are idols, God alone made the heavens and as a result glory and honor are due to him for he reigns as both king and judge of the nations. While the Psalm itself does not go into much detail here, the initial command is to sing to God “a new song”, one that can be sung by the entire earth.
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R/ Give the Lord glory and honor.
For great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
awesome is he, beyond all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are things of nought,
but the LORD made the heavens.
R/ Give the Lord glory and honor. Give to the LORD, you families of nations,
give to the LORD glory and praise;
give to the LORD the glory due his name!
Bring gifts, and enter his courts.
R/ Give the Lord glory and honor.
Worship the LORD, in holy attire;
tremble before him, all the earth;
say among the nations: The LORD is king,
he governs the peoples with equity.
R/ Give the Lord glory and honor.
At a minimum, this command reveals a central aspect of the faith of Israel, namely, that their God alone is the King of the nations. Therefore, in offering this Psalm in her liturgy, Israel as it were “invites” the nations to acknowledge the one true God. However, it is also possible to see this Psalm in light of the prophetic hope that the nations themselves would one day come to worship God on a cosmic Mount Zion (Isa 2:1-4), including a day when the house of David would re-emerge and bring about an international reign of God (Isa 11:1-9, 55:1-5). In the person of Jesus Christ, the hopes of the prophets have been fulfilled, for the nations have been brought into the covenantal family of God, as the second reading from I Thessalonians serves to highlight.
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1–5b
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the ThessaloniansIn the person Jesus, the promised international reign of God has come, and this can be seen in our second reading as evidenced by Paul’s statement that the Gospel has come to the Thessalonians in power and in the Holy Spirit. However, it is important to recognize that the reign of the Lord Jesus is not that of a merely this-worldly kingdom, but a transcendent kingdom animated by the Spirit of Christ, who in his resurrection was appointed by God the Father as both Messiah and Lord of the nations.
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you,
remembering you in our prayers,
unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love
and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,
before our God and Father,
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God,
how you were chosen.
For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.
As a result, the Kingdom of God is properly “trans-political” in that it transcends the political regimes of this age and demonstrates through the “work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope” to the in-breaking of the world to come where Christ reigns as Lord and all things are set right. However, we live between the inauguration of the Kingdom and its full consummation which leaves open the question as to how we should live out our lives as political animals. This leads to the Gospel reading for this Sunday, for not only does it contain one of the most famous sayings of Jesus, but it provides some essential principles for a properly Christian political life.
Gospel: Matthew 22:15–21
The Pharisees went offIn light of our analysis to date, the question posed by the Pharisees and Herodians is particularly fitting, for in putting the question the way they do, they are attempting to catch Jesus in a rather complicated political trap.
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion,
for you do not regard a person's status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax."
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"
They replied, "Caesar's."
At that he said to them,
"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God."
If Jesus answers that they are not to pay the taxes, the Herodians could charge Jesus with insurrection against the Roman Empire, a regime that far surpassed the power and glory of that of Cyrus’s. However, if Jesus answers that they are to pay the taxes, then the Pharisees could charge Jesus with abandoning the faith of Israel in regard to their hopes for national independence from Rome.
Jesus’ remarkable answer does two things simultaneously: it exposes two incorrect views regarding the properly political nature of the Kingdom of God and puts forward a key principle for a right understanding of the Kingdom.
As for the first incorrect view, it is clear from Jesus answer that the Pharisees have set their sights too low in regard to the nature of the Kingdom of God, for it is far more than mere liberation from Rome but the in-breaking of the world to come. However, this does not mean that the Herodians fare any better, for they are clearly wrong to assume the political primacy of the regimes of man, for at best they are simply means to the unfolding purposes of God (as was Cyrus and Persia) and are passing away with the dawning of the age to come.
Instead, those who are members of the Kingdom of God are to render to regimes of this age what is due to them, in this case, taxes, while rendering to God what is due to him. Yet this raises the question: what is due to him?
While the parable itself does not explicitly answer this question, we have some important hints from the other readings, beginning with the responsorial Psalm’s call to offer God the worship that he is due. In the second reading we find a further hint about how this worship can be expressed, namely, through faith, hope, and love in the power of the Spirit.
To apply this to Matthew’s Gospel in particular, this would help illuminate Jesus call to leave father and mother behind for his sake and so receive fantastic wages in the world to come, for through the power of the Holy Spirit the Church is empowered to offer themselves to God in faith, hope, and love and so offer the worship that brings heavenly wages (Matt 19:23-30). In other words, what is due to God is our very lives and it is by the power of his Spirit that we can offer our lives to him and so take our place in the in-breaking Kingdom of God, the world to come.
Among the many sources we could suggest to bring together our reflection on these readings, I am hard pressed to find a better voice than that of Augustine's. As is well known, Augustine distinguished between the city of man as defined by the regimes of this world and their desire for power with the city of God as the trans-political regime of the Kingdom of God as defined by the life of the Church on earth and in heaven.
According to Augustine, while we can work to ensure as much justice as possible in the passing life of the city of man, in the end it is unable to demonstrate the true justice of God due to both the sinfulness of man and the fact that it is passing away along with the rest of the rulers of this age. However, this does not mean that the righteousness of God is unable to be demonstrated on earth, for Augustine elegantly suggests that it is through our eucharistic self-offering that true sacrifice is offered and serves to demonstrate a justice that the regimes of this age are unable to demonstrate. I will conclude with this remarkable passage from Book Ten of the City of God, where after discussing Rom 12:1-6 and Paul's call for the body of Christ to become a "living sacrifices", Augustine states:
This is the sacrifice of Christians, who are 'many, making up one body in Christ'. This is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, a sacrament well-known to the faithful where it is shown to the Church that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God. (City of God, 10.6)