29th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3-5, 7-10
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
Matthew 22:15-21

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind, and this is the reason we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The Lord God is King
In today's Psalm, we sing "The Lord is King and he governs the people [of the earth] with equity!" (Ps 96:10).  Empires, nations, and governments rise and fall through the course of world history, but no earthly nation or ruler can come to power without God granting that ruler or nation authority (Jn 19:11; Rom 13:1).  Sometimes even hard-hearted men receive that authority, becoming God's instrument to reveal His power, as in the case of the Egyptian Pharaoh (Ex 9:16; Rom 9:17).  At other times, invading armies became instruments of redemptive judgment on an apostate and unrepentant people, as in the case of the armies and nations of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans (see 2 Mac 6:7-16). 

However, at other times an earthly ruler can become God's instrument of salvation.  This is what God announces through His prophet Isaiah concerning Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia, in the First Reading.  Isaiah foretells the appointment of a man named Cyrus as God's vehicle of good in restoring the covenant people of Israel/Judah to their homeland after the years of the Babylonian exile.  King Cyrus of Persia, to his credit, historically fulfilled his divinely appointed destiny. 

In the Second Reading, St. Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians that they can fulfill the destiny for which God created them by becoming images of Christ and instruments of God's love and peace.  Paul preaches that our Christian virtues are found in the labors/works of love we offer when we live in the image of Jesus Christ and continue His earthly ministry.  Our works of love joined with the works of others within the Christian community give vitality to Church whose members, as St. Paul reminds us, are divinely elected by God.

In the Gospel Reading, when confronted by the religious and civil leaders concerning the payment of the Roman Emperor's tax, Jesus makes the point that God has authority over all men, even kings.  While the Roman coin used to pay the tax had the image of the Roman emperor on the face of the coin, the emperor was created by God, and he bears the image of his Creator.  Therefore, the emperor, like all human beings, is subject to the sovereignty of Yahweh the Divine King over his life.

The First Reading Isaiah 45:1, 4-6 ~ Cyrus, the Instrument of God
1 Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, 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.  4 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.  5 I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me.  6 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 beside me.  I am the LORD, there is no other.

Writing in the 8th century BC, Isaiah offers hope to the covenant people condemned to God's redemptive judgment of conquest and exile by a foreign power.  The prophet writes that Yahweh's anger will not last forever, and the day will come when God will call a foreign king to restore the covenant people (see Is 44:26-28).  Isaiah's passage is a royal enthronement prophecy like those in Psalm 2 and 110.  God will summon Cyrus by name and will give him the title "Yahweh's anointed one" (mashiach, "anointed" also translated "messiah").  It is usually a title reserved for the Davidic kings of Israel, and it became the title of the Savior-King the prophets promised was to come from David's lineage to redeem Israel.  The paradox is that here the title is conferred upon a pagan ruler who does not know Yahweh (stated twice in Is 45:1 and 6). 

In verse 5, Yahweh states the reason for this unusual choice of a Gentile Messiah: it is for the sake of God's chosen people, referred to as "Jacob" in verse 4.  Jacob was the physical father of the covenant people who God renamed "Israel."  In His judgment on an apostate covenant people, God brought about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC and condemned the remainder of the Israelites to an exile far from their homeland in Babylonia for a period of seventy years (Jer 25:11-12, 29:10).  The purpose of the exile was to cause the Israelites to reject their false gods and to recall a faithful remnant of the people to their covenant relationship with the God of Israel.  The fulfillment of the prophecy of the return from exile took place historically when a man named Cyrus defeated the Babylonian Empire, consolidated the Medes and Persians into one Empire, and ruled from the Persian Empire from 539-530 BC.  In the fall of 538 BC, Cyrus issued an edict that allowed all foreign peoples sent into exile by the Babylonians to return to their homelands.  This edict, recorded in Scripture, is known as "the Edict of Cyrus."  The royal Persian edict included the people of Judah who Cyrus encouraged to rebuild their Temple to Yahweh (see 2 Chr 36:23; Ezra 1:1-4; 5:14).

In 1879, an explorer named Hormuzd Rassam discovered a copy of the edict on an inscribed barrel-shaped, clay chronicle in the ruins of ancient Babylon.  The small 9-inch artifact, now called the Cyrus Cylinder, describes the benevolent policy of Cyrus of Persia in restoring captives to their homelands along with their religious treasures.  The inscription on the artifact, which now resides in the British Museum, refers to the God of Israel: "So said Cyrus the king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth has YHWH God of the Heavens delivered to me, and he commanded me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judea.  Who among you of all his people, may YHWH his God be with him, and he may ascend ..."  It is incredible that Cyrus gives credit for his rise to power to the God of Israel as prophesied by Isaiah.  Perhaps Judeans living in his territory and serving in his court had shared Isaiah's prophecy with the Persian king.

Responsorial Psalm 96:1a-b, 3-5, 7-10 ~ Yahweh is the Divine King Among the Nations
The response is: "Give the Lord glory and honor."

1a-b Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all you lands.  3 Tell his glory among the nations; among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
Response:
4 For great is the LORD and highly to be praised; awesome is he, beyond all gods.  5 For all the gods of the nations are things of nought, but the LORD made the heavens.
Response:
7 Give to the LORD, you families of nations, give to the LORD glory and praise; 8 give to the LORD the glory due his name!  9 Bring gifts, and enter his courts.
Response:
Worship the LORD in holy attire.  Tremble before him, all the earth; 10 say among the nations: The LORD is king, he governs the people with equity.
Response:

Psalm 96 is part of a group of psalms that celebrate the kingship of God (Ps 93-100).  The psalm is a hymn in honor of the sovereignty of God over the earth and its peoples.  It is also found (with a few changes) in 1 Chronicles 16:23-33 as part of a thanksgiving hymn sung by the Levitical choir after King David ordered that the Ark of the Covenant to be carried to its new home in Jerusalem (1 Chr 16:1-42).

The psalm begins by calling all the people of the earth to praise God (verses 1-3), and then gives the reasons why (verses 4-6).  The psalm then calls for all peoples to worship Yahweh the King and to bring Him offerings (verses 7-9) in proclaiming His Divine kingship in which all the earth can rejoice.  In verse 10, the peoples of the earth are invited to acknowledge that the God-King who controls the cosmos is also the God-King who dispenses justice equally to all peoples of the earth.

The Second Reading 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b ~ Preaching the Gospel
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace.  2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly 3 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, 4 knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen.  5 For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.

St. Paul is writing to the Christian converts in the city of Thessalonica in the Roman controlled province of Macedonia.  He founded the community there in the summer of AD 50 during his second missionary journey (Acts 17:1-10).  It would appear that Paul wrote this letter to the community in the winter of AD 50-51 in the company of his missionary companions Silvanus and Timothy.  It has been reported back to Paul that, despite their persecution, the people were remaining faithful to the Gospel, and Paul is very pleased with the community's progress in the faith.

3 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, 4 knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen.
Notice in verse 3 that Paul comments on the community's faith, hope, and love ("charity" in some translations).  In the New Testament, charity is love in action.  Paul preaches that faith, hope, and love/charity are the three enduring virtues of Christians in 1 Corinthians 13:13.  Paul commends the Thessalonians that these virtues are exercised by their community and give vitality to the members of the Church who, as St. Paul reminds the congregation, are divinely elected by God (verse 4). Concerning the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love/charity see CCC 1812-13, 1814-29

5 For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.
The Gospel isn't just a message to be received.  It is more than a proclamation.  It is transforming power generated by the Holy Spirit.  This transforming power results in a whole new economy of salvation in God's divine plan, carried forth by the conviction of believers, as in this community, to transform the world (economy of salvation see CCC 66, 122, 260, 258-59, 1066).

The Gospel of Matthew 22:15-21 ~ Paying Caesar's Tax
15 Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech.  16 They send 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.  17 Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax [kensos] to Caesar or not?'  18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?  19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax."  Then they handed him the Roman coin [denarius].  20 He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"  21 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."  [...] = literal translation (IBGE vol. IV, page 66).

The verb pagideuo in verse 15 means "to set a snare or trap" and appears only in this passage in the New Testament.  The denarius was a Roman coin that was worth a day's pay for a common laborer.  It bore the image of the current Roman emperor on one side of the coin.

The Pharisees and Herodians are unlikely allies.  The Pharisees, according to the priest/historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) who identified himself as a Pharisee, were the religious/political group that was most influential with the people.  They were known for their scrupulous observance of Jewish religious practices and their authoritative interpretations of Jewish law (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.5.9, 10.6; Life 38).  The Pharisees despised Roman rule, and as a group, they refused to take the oaths of allegiance to Rome and King Herod (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.2.4).  The Herodians, on the other hand, were Greek culture Jews who cooperated with and even admired the Romans.  They were not known as faithful observers of the Law. 

The same Pharisees that had challenged Jesus earlier didn't return with this challenge.  Instead, they sent their disciples who one assumes had not been present in the earlier confrontation with Jesus.  Perhaps the strategy was that Jesus wouldn't recognize their disciples, and He might speak more freely so they could entrap Him.  Their representatives begin by attempting to flatter Jesus.  Their flattery and their plot to trap Jesus underscore their malice and wickedness.  What is ironic is that for once, even though they are insincere, their statements concerning Jesus are true.  They ask Jesus if it is "lawful," meaning acceptable according to God, to pay the Roman poll tax (verse 17). 

The Greek word kensos is census in Latin.  When the Romans deposed Herod the Great's son Archelaus in 6 AD, they imposed direct rule by a Roman governor over Judea.  At that time they began to impose an annual poll or head tax of a Roman denarius on all the men, women, and slaves from age twelve/fourteen to age sixty-five.  In Jesus' day, the Roman denarius bore the image of the Emperor Tiberius (ruled 14-37 AD) and the Latin inscription Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontiflex Maximus—"Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest" (Harrington, Gospel of Matthew, page 310).  Tiberius was the adopted son of the previous emperor, Augustus (Octavian), worshipped as a god since his death in 14 AD.  Payment of the tax had to be in the Roman coinage because it symbolically represented the people's subservience to Roman rule.

The trap they intended to set for Jesus was a two-way trap depending on Jesus' answer.  If Jesus condemns the tax, He is encouraging the people to reject Rome's authority over Judea and Jesus and could be arrested by the Romans for encouraging insurrection.  If however, He agrees that the tax bearing the image of the Roman emperor who claims to be the son of a god should be paid to the Romans, He will be taking a position contrary to the feelings of the majority of the common people.  Most Jews saw the claim that Augustus was a god as a sacrilege, and they were unlikely to follow Jesus because they were looking to Him as the liberator-Messiah sent to free them from the Romans.

The joining of the forces of these two groups (the Pharisees and Herodians) to "trap" Jesus may be an application of the adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and considering the trap they intended to set, it was expedient for the Pharisees to include the Herodians. The Pharisees did not support the Roman tax, but the Herodians did.  If Jesus condemned the Roman tax, who better than the Herodian allies to make the charge to the Roman governor that Jesus was undermining obedience to Roman rule.

18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?  19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax."  Then they handed him the Roman coin [denarius].  20 He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"  21 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." 
Their flattering language did not deceive Jesus.  He accuses the group of hypocrisy, using the Greek word hupokrites, which means "an actor who plays a part."  There is no equivalent for this word in Hebrew or Aramaic (Aramaic is the common language Jesus is speaking).  Jesus calls the Pharisees "hypocrites" fourteen times in Matthew's Gospel (Mt 6:2, 5, 16; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51).

Notice how cleverly Jesus reverses the trap.  Since the Jews had to pay the tax with Roman coinage that bore the image of Caesar, the coins belonged to Caesar.  Paying the denarius was simply giving back to Caesar what was his.  But in addition to telling His adversaries "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar" Jesus also says "and to God what belongs to God."  This statement left the Pharisees without an answer and 22 When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

Jesus' statement that one must repay "to God what belongs to God" is a significant statement in relation to Jesus' question about the "image" on the coin (verse 20).  The Jews, especially the Pharisees, did not miss the significance of Jesus' statement.  They remembered that according to Genesis 1:27, all humans were "made in the image of God."  While the Roman coin had the image of the Roman emperor, the emperor was created by God and bears the image of his Creator.  Therefore, the emperor is ultimately subject to God's sovereignty over his life.  They went away "amazed" that Jesus had turned their "trap" against them.

Catechism References:
Isaiah 45:4-6 (CCC 304)
1 Thessalonians 1:3 (CCC 1812-13, 1814-29)
Matthew 22:15-21 (CCC 355, 2242)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017