October 20, 2017

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe second part of the Book of Isaiah provides the first reading for Mass on this weekend. The context is a bad time for God’s people. The two Hebrew kingdoms no longer existed, both having been victims of a military onslaught from neighboring and very strong Babylonia.

The invasions swept away the structures of the two kingdoms. Their dynasties were eradicated. The Hebrews lost their independence. Many people died. Survivors were at the mercy of the invaders.

Victorious invaders took many of the survivors to Babylon, the capital of the empire, where the Hebrews were kept. They were not exactly hostages, but their lives were miserable.

Times eventually changed, however. The Babylonians fell before the intrusion of a powerful neighbor, Persia.

Cyrus, the Persian king, had no interest in the Hebrew exiles, so he allowed them to return home. For the exiles, it was a day of unequalled joy.

A most novel turn of phrase was the prophet’s depiction of King Cyrus as an instrument of God. It was a novelty since Cyrus was a pagan. He was not in any sense a son of Abraham. He had no knowledge of, or regard for, the One God of Israel. His ancestors had never followed Moses across the Sinai Peninsula in the Exodus.

Yet, God used Cyrus to accomplish his divine will. The divine will was responsible for the survival and return to peace and security of the children of Abraham.

This weekend’s second reading is from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians. Thessalonica was a city on the Greek mainland of the Balkan Peninsula. It is one of the few New Testament cities still existing as an important center, site of the modern Greek city of Saloniki.

The epistle comes from Paul, along with his disciples Silvanus and Timothy.

Paul had to reassure, encourage and strengthen Thessalonica’s Christian community, trying to exist in the midst of a hostile, pagan culture. He also had to assert his own credentials. Paul insisted that he was a most devout believer in the message of the Lord Jesus.

He was an Apostle, specially chosen by Christ. So, his authority came from the Lord.

St. Matthew’s Gospel provides the last reading. It is one of the best-known passages in the New Testament.

Again and again, this text is used to defend the principle of separation of Church and state, almost as if to say the reading declares that two reservoirs of authority exist on Earth, equal but distinct, one the state, the other God.

This is not the meaning of the passage.

Jesus was presented with a text. Detractors thought that they could trick the Lord. If the Lord spoke against paying taxes, then Roman law would be violated. The Romans were unforgiving. He would be doomed. On the other hand, if Jesus approved paying taxes, then he would endorse the Roman conquest and occupation so hated by his fellow Jews.

Jesus deftly avoided this trap. He bluntly stated that the spiritual, God’s law, is the supreme. Consider first and last the kingdom of God.

Reflection

Sadly this magnificent lesson from Matthew’s Gospel often is distorted into considering the separation of Church and state, in the modern context, arguing that God is on one side, civil authority on the other.

Reigning supreme over everything is the Gospel. Even civil authority must submit to God’s law and revelation. Civil power must serve divine law and order.

Church-state relations and differences of course are real, with serious implications. Surely, the state deserves respect, but “render to God the things of God” (Mt 22:21). Everything is subject to God. First, last and always, God alone deserves homage.

The image on the coin was important. It bore Caesar’s profile, making it contemptible for Jews.

Give the emperor the detested, filthy coin. Give God true devotion. †

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