October 17, 2008

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

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe second part of the Book of Isaiah provides this weekend’s first reading.

The context of the reading records a very bad time for God’s people. The southern kingdom of Judah no longer exists. It was the victim of a military onslaught from the neighboring, and very strong, Babylonia.

The invasion swept away the structures of the kingdom. The dynasty was eradicated. Independence was lost. Many were dead. All survivors were at the mercy of the invaders.

Even these survivors were not left alone to mourn their losses. The invaders took many of the survivors to Babylon, the capital of the empire. There, the Hebrews were kept, not exactly as hostages, but their lives were miserable.

However, times eventually changed. The Babylonians fell to the intrusion of a powerful neighbor, Persia.

The Persian king, Cyrus, had no interest in the exiles from the once Hebrew kingdoms 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. The reason that this was a novelty was that Cyrus was a pagan. He was not, in any sense, a son of Abraham. His ancestors had never followed Moses across the Sinai Peninsula in the Exodus, yet God used Cyrus to accomplish the divine will to effect the survival, and return to peace and security, of the children of Abraham.

This weekend’s second reading is from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians.

Thessalonica was a Greek city on the Greek mainland of the Balkan Peninsula. It is one of the few New Testament cities still existing as an important center. It is the 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. He was an Apostle, specially chosen by Christ. His authority came from the Lord. Paul insisted that he was a most devout believer in the message of the Lord Jesus.

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 it is that there are two reservoirs of authority on Earth—one the state and the other God.

This is not the Gospel’s message.

Jesus is presented with a text. In a way, the Lord could not have won. If the Lord spoke against paying taxes then the Roman law would be violated. The Romans were unforgiving. He would be doomed. Yet, if Jesus approved paying taxes, then the Lord would endorse the hated Roman conquest and occupation.

Jesus fell into neither trap. He bluntly stated that the spiritual is the most important, and that people should consider, first and last, the kingdom of God.


Sadly, this magnificent lesson from Matthew’s Gospel is diverted to a consideration, indeed a presumed teaching of Christ, about the separation of Church and state.

Of course, Church-state relations are real, and these relations have serious implications. Surely, the state deserves respect.

However, supreme over everything is the Gospel. Even civil authority must submit to God. Even civil law must reflect divine law.

“Render to God the things of God.” The things of God are not on this side, and civil concerns on the other. Instead, everything belongs to God. He alone deserves homage and obedience.

The image of the coin is important. It bears Caesar’s profile, thereby being contemptible in Jewish minds. Give the emperor the coin. Give God true devotion. †

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