October 16, 2020

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 this weekend. The context was a bad time for God’s people. The two Hebrew kingdoms no longer existed, both having been victims of the strong military might of neighboring Babylonia.

Invasions had swept away the two kingdoms. Their dynasties were eradicated. They 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. Although not exactly hostages, their lives were miserable.

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

Cyrus, the Persian king, had no interest in holding the exiles from the once Hebrew kingdoms, so he allowed them to return home. For them, 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 God of Israel. His ancestors had never followed Moses across the Sinai Peninsula in the Exodus.

Yet, God used Cyrus to accomplish his will. The divine will was responsible for the survival, 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 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, site of the modern Greek city of Saloniki.

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

Paul reassured, encouraged and strengthened Thessalonica’s Christians, trying to exist amid a hostile pagan culture. He also forcefully asserted his own credentials. Paul insisted that he was a most devout believer in the message of the Lord Jesus and an Apostle, specially chosen by Christ. 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.

The reading does not teach that two reservoirs of authority exist on Earth, equal but distinct, removed from each other, one the state, the other God.

Detractors thought that they could trick Jesus. If the Lord spoke against paying taxes, Roman law would be violated, and the Romans were unforgiving. If Jesus approved paying taxes, then the hated Roman conquest and occupation would be validated.

Jesus avoided both traps, bluntly stating that God’s law is supreme. The emperor’s image on the coin was important. Give it back to him. It only is metal, an earthly invention.


Sadly, this magnificent lesson from Matthew’s Gospel often is distorted in interpretations of the separation of Church and state in the American constitutional context.

The Bill of Rights responded to the widespread practice at the time of a government preferring, and legally supporting, one faith community over another. England maintained the Church of England. France and Spain enforced Catholicism.

Constitutionally, in America, primacy was given to personal conviction, including religious conviction. The state should not frustrate or complicate individual conscience by elevating one stated theology over another.

Civil authority has rights and dignity, because it enables justice and the common good. But today, Christians who detest legal abortion (frankly now the law of the land) are fully within their human and constitutional rights.

Even in democracies, civil authority comes from fallible human judgments. Divine revelation is from God.

Church-state relations, and differences, of course are real, with serious implications. Admittedly, not all differences are clear-cut. Do one person’s rights impede another? Still, give God allegiance. †

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