Brief synopsis of the readings: We’re still in Isaiah, now in the 45th chapter. God is speaking to the Persian king Cyrus (who he describes as anointed). God announces that Cyrus has been called by name “though [he] knew me not.” Further, “[I]t is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me.” Matthew’s Gospel continues the 22nd chapter. Here the Pharisees began their plot to entrap Jesus. They asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Empire. Jesus recognized the trap and asked for a coin. He was handed a Roman coin and he asked whose image was found on the coin: it was Caesar. Jesus then suggested that they should “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Catholics are often accused of knowing little about the Bible, and I have to confess that there was some truth in that for me. When I was growing up I knew little of the Bible other than the readings I heard in church. My family had a Bible but it only came out at Christmas and was always opened to the illustration of Jesus in the manger in Matthew’s Gospel. This won’t come as a surprise to many Catholics but I didn’t own a Bible until my high school graduation.
And if my only exposure to Scripture came from Sunday mass, I heard much more from the New Testament than the Old. Generally the first reading came from the Old Testament, the second reading (that I don’t include in these homilies) normally came from the Acts of the Apostles or one of Paul’s letters, and the Gospel was always from one of the four Gospels.
Contrary to this introduction I liked the books of the Old Testament better. Maybe it was because the stories were better, or may it was because they described a longer swath of history, or maybe because most there are more books in the Old Testament. But when I entered the seminary and began to take courses in Scripture I recognized just how little I knew about the timeline and the characters of the Old Testament. I still remember how surprised I was to hear about Cyrus.
If all you knew about Cyrus came from this reading, you’d not be blamed for thinking Cyrus was an Israelite, one chosen by God to lead his people. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t even close. Cyrus was the king of Persia and may have had little understanding of who the Israelites were.
By way of background, this passage from Isaiah comes to us at the end of their exile. Approximately 58 years earlier the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians. Their temple was destroyed and many of them were driven into exile. Their fears of losing their identity and history were saved when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. When Cyrus liberated the Israelites from their captivity, not only did he allow them to return, he even helped provide the funding to rebuild the temple (in Ezra 1:4 Cyrus declared that “all those who have survived…be assisted by the people of that place with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, together with voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem”).
Why did Cyrus do this? Perhaps he operating on the belief that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Or he believed this would further humiliate the Babylonians. We don’t know, but I find it telling that God calls Cyrus “anointed.” Clearly here God works through someone other than his chosen people to do God’s will. In Exodus 9:12 God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in preparation for the Exodus. But here God “softens” Cyrus’ heart.
I believe sometimes we think we know too much of God’s mind and that limits our imagination. When we divide the world into “us vs. them” it becomes too easy to believe that God works only through “us” to defeat “them.” But we serve God best when we understand that God’s will, and even his generosity, break through the barriers we attempt to create.
I think we see how that continues in today’s Gospel. In the last few weeks we’ve seen how Jesus toyed with the chief priests and elders. In today’s Gospel the pharisees (a subset of the chief priests and elders) perhaps had finally had enough. The gathered to set a trap for Jesus and the trap they set was dangerous, if not imaginative. As subjects of the Roman empire Jews were required to pay taxes and the Roman coins bore the likeness of Caesar (much like our coins today bear images of Washington, Lincoln, and the rest). But the Jews of the time were commanded by the second commandment not to make graven images and they hated using Roman coins for anything.
The pharisees believed they found the perfect trap. By asking Jesus whether they should pay taxes to Casear they thought thought they backed Jesus into a corner. If he said they should, the Jews would lose faith in him as someone who told them to use graven images. If he said they shouldn’t, the Romans would see Jesus as an enemy of the Roman empire and his life would be in danger. They wished to create a a dichotomy: who do you serve, God or Caesar?
Jesus’ answer befuddled them, but I think it goes farther than that. This Gospel doesn’t simply show that Jesus is smarter than the pharisees. When Jesus tells the pharisees to “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God” he recognized that Caesar and God don’t claim the same place.
What belongs to God isn’t just God’s relationship to God’s chosen ones, but everything. We belong to God but so did Cyrus, and so did Caesar. When God created the universe God didn’t take sides. When we think of ourselves as the “chosen people” we shouldn’t think of everyone else as the “unchosen people.”
Being chosen shouldn’t make us think of ourselves as better, it should make us think of ourselves as assigned. We are called not to celebrate God’s choice as much as we are called to build God’s kingdom on earth. As a Catholic I don’t think God wants me to make everyone Catholic. As a Christian I don’t think God wants me to make everyone Christian.
As a disciple of God I think God wants me to make everyone better. Cyrus’ actions opened a new chapter in the salvation history of the Israelites. Had Cyrus not conquered the Babylonians, had the exiled Israelites assimilated into Babylon and lost their identity, today’s world would be poorer.
And when Jesus tells the pharisees to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, he tells us that everything belongs to God. This isn’t about paying taxes but about what we owe each other. In other words we shouldn’t quibble about our loyalties. If Caesar wants the coins that bear his image we shouldn’t think they represent anything other than what he already owns.
I recognize that those coins represent the taxes they owe, and I’m mindful that part of their labor went to Rome. But if Rome’s part comes only from labor, it’s a small part. God’s part of our lives commands not our labor but our lives. God’s part informs our love, our kindness, our generosity, our moral compass, our…well you get the point.
Today’s Gospel demands that we order our lives in fellowship to Jesus, but it also demands that we look beyond those we consider our own. None of the Israelite exiles expected to find their redemption in Cyrus and the pharisees didn’t expect Jesus to tell them to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
As disciples today, 2000 years after these readings, what are we to do? I think it’s pretty clear that we should pay our taxes but we are not disciples of Cyrus, or Caesar, or today’s leaders. They may own part of my pocket, but the own none of my heart. It all goes to God.