Our second reading, the opening of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians sets up our consideration of today's Scriptures. Paul invites us to listen to his letter as though we were the community originally addressed, to bask in his description of us, and nod in agreement with the members of that early community of Greek-speaking Christians.
in Ordinary Time
|Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Paul's opening words actually reinforce the community's identity as a people called together by God's gracious love who live their faith in Jesus as their Lord, the savior that God sent into the world. Even if he's more complimentary than we deserve, Paul's recognition of the grace of our call inspires us to revitalize our way of living our vocation. We can approach the other readings from that starting point.
Beginning with Matthew's delightful account, we ask, "Who in their right mind starts a debate with Jesus and expects to win?" In today's Gospel, the Pharisees' henchmen tried to trap Jesus by posing an either-or quandary. The tax in question was imposed on every man, woman and slave in Judea between the ages of 14 and 65, and was to be paid in Roman coin. Israelite nationalists resisted the tax to the point of armed rebellions, the last of which brought on the destruction of the Temple. Additionally, the denarius used for payment was stamped with an image of the emperor and called him the son of God -- not at all in keeping with Jewish sensibilities.
This was an emotionally charged question designed to get Jesus in trouble with one camp or the other. Perhaps Jesus had meditated on today's reading from Isaiah and took his approach from the prophet's explanation of God's dealing with the world.
In Isaiah 45, we hear God's plan to save Israel through the military leadership of a pagan king working for his own advancement. In the long run, that was very good news; it was also a slap in the face of Jewish national pride. God spoke in glowing terms about the Cyrus the pagan. Worse yet, when God referred to Cyrus as "anointed," the implication was the Davidic royal line had come to an end. That was a bitter pill. This pagan who didn't even know who God was had been picked as the one to save the chosen people!
Not far below the surface of the conflictual feelings about Cyrus lay questions of identity. Who were they as a chosen people if God was willing to work through others? Who, really, was God? The second question is the key. God, through Isaiah, was calling the people to go beyond their tribalism, to accept the implications of their own profession of faith.
They should have noticed that twice in this short reading God said, "I am the Lord, there is no other." They were facing a question that eventually plagues most monotheists. Was God exclusively their god or was God bigger than their orthodoxy? Theoretically, the answer is a no-brainer. In practice, affirming faith in God as Creator and Lord of history humbles all believers, recognizing God's freedom to act with us, for us, and even in spite of us, through any means God chooses to use -- without seeking our approval.
Back to Jesus and the poor guys sent to trip him up; their first setback came in inadvertently proving they carried the sacrilegious coin. That in itself was a capitulation to Rome. Given they were in possession of a "graven image," Jesus got them to admit whose image it was, and pointed out that the coin obviously must belong to the one whose face it portrayed. (It surely couldn't belong to faithful Israelites!)
Jesus had successfully confounded those sent to investigate his orthodoxy. But his goal went beyond winning the debate. This was a teaching moment. Thus his question about whose image and inscription pointed beyond coin and toward God. The unarticulated question hanging over the whole conversation asks where one encounters the image, works and words of God.
Now it all comes full circle. The final answer is that everything -- even Caesar and Cyrus -- belongs to God. God's word is intended to lead us beyond our limited, self-aggrandizing dogmatism to recognize the image of God in human persons, including those who do not share our theology.
Paul reminded us that our faith is a result of God's graced calling. Isaiah reminds us that only God is God and that God can work through anyone. Jesus, with some humor, calls us to remember what it means that we ourselves belong to God and only to God.
[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]