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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

Abbreviations: NAB (New American Bible), 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 humanity, and that is why 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 the Sunday's Readings: The Lord God is King
In today's Responsorial 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 throughout 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 Egyptian Pharaoh of the Exodus (Ex 9:16; Rom 9:17).  At other times, invading armies became instruments of redemptive judgment on apostate and unrepentant covenant people, as in 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, a name in Persian meaning "shepherd," to accomplish the will of God (Is 44:28), beginning with the redemption of God's people from the Babylonian captivity (Is 41:2-5, 25; 44:24, 28; 45:1-5, 13; 48:14-15).  As God's vehicle for good, King Cyrus not only restored the covenant people of Israel/Judah to their homeland after the years of the Babylonian exile, but he commissioned the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon that the Babylonians destroyed (Ezra 3:7).  King Cyrus of Persia historically fulfilled his divinely appointed destiny, and he is the only Gentile in the Bible to be called God's Messiah (Is 45:1).

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 and charity joined with the righteous deeds of others within the Christian community give vitality to Jesus' Kingdom of the 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 its face, God created the emperor, and he bears the image of his Creator.  Therefore, like all human beings, the emperor is subject to Yahweh's sovereignty as 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 He will call a foreign king named Cyrus to restore the covenant people (Is 44:26-28).

Our reading from the Book of Isaiah is a royal enthronement prophecy like those in Psalm 2 and 110 for Davidic kings.  God will summon Cyrus by name and will give him the title "Yahweh's anointed" (in Hebrew = 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 (i.e., Is 11:1-4, 10-12; Jer 23:5-6; Ez 34:23-23; Zec 3:8-10).  The paradox is that here the title is conferred upon a Gentile ruler who does not know Yahweh (stated twice in Is 45:1 and 6).  However, to the Biblical writers, the term "Yahweh's anointed" is more than a title.  It also connotes a theology.  "Yahweh's anointed" is a legitimate king appointed and protected by God (c.f., Psalm 2:6-10; 18:47-51).

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 seventy years (Jer 25:11-12, 29:10).  The purpose of their exile judgment was to cause the people to reject their false gods and later to recall a faithful remnant of the people back to their homeland to renew their covenant relationship with Israel's God.

The historical fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy occurred when a Persian king who took the throne name, Cyrus II, defeated the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus the Great was the Persian king of Fars, a southern province of present-day Iran. Greek historians and the chronicle of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, record that in 553 B.C, Cyrus rebelled against the ruling Medes.  By 550, he had defeated them and consolidated the Medes and Persians into one Empire, ruling from 539-530 B.C.  After conquering the Medes, Cyrus turned his armies to the West.  By 546, he had defeated the Lydians (in modern Turkey).  Next, Cyrus set out to conquer the most powerful kingdom in Central Asia: Babylon.  By the end of 539, he had taken Babylon and captured its king, Nabonidus, extending the Persian Empire from the Aegean Sea to Central Asia.  It was probably in the fall of 538 B.C. that Cyrus issued a decree permitting all peoples conquered and displaced by the Babylonians to return to their homelands. The royal Persian proclamation, known as "the Edict of Cyrus," included the people of Judah who Cyrus encouraged to return to Jerusalem and rebuild Yahweh's Temple (see 2 Chr 36:23; Ezra 1:1-11; 5:13-15; 6:1), foretold two centuries earlier by Isaiah in 44:24, 28.

In 1879, an explorer named Hormuzd Rassam discovered a copy of Cyrus' decree on an inscribed barrel-shaped clay chronicle in the ruins of ancient Babylon.  The small 10-inch artifact, now called the Cyrus Cylinder, describes the benevolent policy of Cyrus II of Persia in restoring captives to their homelands along with their religious treasures.  It records Cyrus the Great's liberation of Babylon in 539 B.C., his benevolence to peoples previously subjugated under the Babylonians, and his restoration of local religious practices.  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 ...."  Incredibly, on the inscribed clay cylinder, King Cyrus gives credit for his rise to power to YHWH (Yahweh), the God of Israel, as prophesied by Isaiah.  Perhaps Israelites/Judeans (like the prophet Daniel) living in his territory and serving in his court, had shared the Cyrus prophecy with the Persian king, who then saw himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

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 naught, 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.

Psalm 96 is part of a group of psalms that celebrate God's kingship (Ps 93-100).  The psalm is a hymn in honor of God's sovereignty over the earth and its peoples, giving praise to Yahweh as Divine King and Judge.  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 carried to its new home in Jerusalem (1 Chr 16:1-42).

The psalm begins by calling all peoples of the earth to praise God (verses 1-3) and then gives the reasons why they should render praise to Yahweh (verses 4-6), whose Divine Name is repeated eight times in our passage (verses 1-2 three times, 4, 6, 7-8 three times).  The psalm then calls for all peoples to worship Yahweh the King and bring Him their offerings (verses 7-9) in proclaiming His Divine kingship in which all the earth can rejoice.  In verse 10, the psalmist invites the nations to acknowledge that the God-King who controls the cosmos is also the God-King who dispenses justice equally to all earth's peoples.

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 was writing to the Christian converts living in Thessalonica in the Roman-controlled province of Macedonia.  In the summer of A.D. 50, he founded the Christian community 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.  Christians there had reported back to Paul that, despite their persecution, the people remained faithful to Jesus' Gospel message, and Paul is 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.  He commends the Thessalonians Christians for practicing these virtues, giving 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 good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ isn't just a message to be received.  It is more than a proclamation.  It is transforming power generated by the Holy Spirit.  This power results in a whole new economy of salvation in God's Divine Plan, carried forth by every believers' conviction of their mission to transform the world!   For more on the 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 [pagideuo] 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 Jewish Pharisees and Herodians were unlikely allies.  According to the priest/historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD), who identified himself as a Pharisee, the Pharisees 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 Mosaic 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 the Herodian rulers (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.2.4).  On the other hand, the Herodians were Greek culture Jews who cooperated with and even admired the Romans.  Herodians were not viewed 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 accurate.  They ask Jesus if it is "lawful," meaning acceptable according to God's Law, 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 A.D. 6, they imposed direct rule over Judea by a Roman governor.  At the same 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 Emperor Tiberius (ruled A.D. 14-37) 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).  Emperor Tiberius was the adopted son and heir of the previous emperor, Augustus Caesar (Octavian).  Emperor Augustus was worshipped as a god in the Roman Empire since his death in A.D. 14.  The tax payment had to be in Roman coinage bearing the emperor's image 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 He condemned the tax, He encouraged the people to reject Rome's authority over Judea and Jesus and could be arrested by the Romans for encouraging insurrection.  If, however, Jesus agreed that Jews should pay the Roman tax, using a coin bearing the image of the Roman emperor who claimed to be the son of a god, He would be taking a position contrary to the feelings of the majority of the Jewish 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 accused them of hypocrisy, using the Greek word hupokrites, which means "an actor who plays a part."  There is no equivalent for this Greek 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 reversed the trap.  Since the Jews had to pay the tax with Roman coinage that bore Caesar's image, the coins belonged to Caesar.  Paying the denarius was giving back to Caesar what was his.  However, in addition to telling His adversaries, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar," Jesus also said, "and to God what belongs to God."  This statement left the Pharisees without an answer.

Jesus' declaration that one must repay "to God what belongs to God" is a significant statement related 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 Roman emperor's image, God was his Creator and had created the emperor in His image.  Therefore, the emperor was ultimately subject to God's sovereignty over his life.  The Pharisees and Herodians went away "amazed" that Jesus had turned their "trap" against them: 22 When they heard this, they were amazed, and leaving him, they went away (not in our reading).

Catechism References (* indicates Scripture quoted or paraphrased in the citation):
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 2020 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.