Theme: Not mere words but action
World Mission Sunday
Today’s readings invite us to recognize the hand of God at work in human history while revealing a sense of the sacred within the most secular circumstance. Isaiah tells his contemporaries that their political fortunes are changing for the better, not simply because one earthly power is prevailing over another but because God has willed it to happen.
When Jesus is confronted by adversaries about their legality to paying taxes, he tells them to respect and obey civil authorities without forgetting their obligations to God since all authority comes from God. The Gospel transforms all of us and asks us to collaborate with God.
First reading: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Prophet Isaiah wants us to recognize the hand of God at work in human history. In a vision Prophet Isaiah reveled how Israel’ political fortunes were changing for the better and this was because God had willed and provided. To date, visitors to southern Iran can see a remarkably well preserved tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae. Cyrus’ victories began with the conquests of Media in 549 B.C, Lydia in 546 B.C and climaxed with the dramatic toppling of the Babylonian empire in 539 B.C. Although he died in battle against central Asian nomads only nine years later, he made an indelible impression on the Judaeo-Christian schema of salvation history. At the height of his power, Cyrus’ empire extended from the Aegean Sea to the Indian frontier which included all of Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. As the foundation of his vast realm, Cyrus established what has been called a pax orientalis, a unique policy of benevolence. While he held firm control by placing Medes and Persians in highest offices, by establishing an efficient communications system, and by his armies, he respected the indigenous religious and cultural sensibilities.
For the Israelites exiled in Babylonia, King Cyrus’ policy meant that they were free to return to their homeland and rebuild their lives politically and religiously. Cyrus provided skilled laborers and materials toward the reconstruction of the temple and returned the treasures that had been plundered by Nabuchodonosor cf. Ezra 1:1-4, 2Chronicles 36:22-23. In fact that the reconstruction of the Jewish community in Palestine gave a lasting effect than any other that Cyrus accomplished.
Whereas others perceived human history as a web of distinct peoples wending their separate ways with deities, Prophet Isaiah shared a vision of one God as provident plan reaching out to all nations while guiding the destinies of all peoples. King Cyrus therefore, though a gentile was that providence of God meant to set people free. God can pass through any one to accomplish good.
Second reading: 1Thessalonians 1:1-5
In his account of founding the Church in Europe which is narrated in Acts 16:6-10, Luke emphasized in vivid style the role played by the Holy Spirit in setting the course for Paul and those who accompanied him. Although the missionaries intended to travel to Bithynia in Asia Minor, the Spirit made it known that Macedonia was to be their destination. Accordingly Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke set sail from Troas to begin their European mission. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul also emphasized the role played by the Holy Spirit in helping the good news to take root in the new converts and by virtue of their efforts to spread far and wide cf. 1Thessalonians 1:5. Originally named Thermai/Hot Springs, ancient Thessalonica was an important harbor utilized by the successive waves of Persians, Greeks and Romans who controlled it. Thessalonica’s ideal location made it a strategic foundation for the early Church. The city’s main thoroughfare was part of the Via Egnatia which stretched from Dyrrachium on the Adriatic Sea to Constantinople on the Bosphorus and then on to Asia Minor and the East.
Described as being ‘in the lap of the Roman Empire,’ Thessalonica welcomed traders and their wares from all over the then known world. Thus finding a firm foothold there, Christianity was assured that the Good News would travel from there to all points east and west. After a short period of preaching in Thessalonica’s Synagogue, Paul and Silvanus were compelled to escape from the city; Luke explained that their forced departure was due to a riot that had erupted within the Jewish population because of the popularity of the Christian message cf. Acts 17:1-10. Fearlessly, these missionaries continued to travel and preach the good news to other Greek cities. The bad news which Timothy brought to Paul concerned a misunderstanding that persisted among the Thessalonians. Many were preoccupied with Jesus’ second coming and worried about the fate of those who died beforehand. Later in his letter, Paul deals with these matters. For now, however, we are all invited to admire the community of Thessalonica and aspire to have a similar commitment to the good news.
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21
When Jesus was confronted by adversaries, he reminded them of their undivided allegiance to civil authorities and to God. The Romans powerful as they looked had betrayed this plan of action and their empire expired. The following reasons contributed greatly to their fall: 1- The rapid increase of divorce and concubinage. 2- The brutal and exciting sports where Lions ate human beings alive to the excitement of the noble. 3- The amassing of unnecessary armaments always preparing for war. 4- The decay of religion that destroyed the sense of sin. 5- Higher taxes to enrich the lazy few seated on their verandahs whole day. As is reflected in today’s gospel, Rome’s policy of taxation was also a thorny issue for Jesus’ contemporaries. The empire exacted three types of taxes: 1- ground tax, which required that 10% of all grain, 20% of all oil and wine production be given to Rome. 2-income tax, equivalent to 1% of a person’s earning. 3- poll tax, which amounted to a denarius or a full day’s wage for every household.
When the Pharisees and Herodians raised the subject of taxes with Jesus, they instigated the first of a series of four disputes; their intention was not simply to engage Jesus in lively conversation but to trap him. The insincerity of their motives since their intention was to trap him as when capturing of an animal in a snare. To ask if taxes are lawful or not was meant make the empire be hated as an oppressor. These were dangerous questions that deserved a well thought answer. The Herodians being supporters of Herod whose power in Judah was secured by Rome would not have been opposed to paying taxes to Rome; but the Pharisees who vehemently opposed what they regarded as an infringement on the sovereign authority of God would have been happy. In this case the known natural enemies had teamed up with an intention to discrediting Jesus. If he agreed to the Roman tax, Jesus would have alienated the majority of the population who suffered under its tyranny. If he called Roman taxation unlawful, Jesus left himself open to charges of sedition and treason. In wise rabbinic fashion, Jesus cut through the legal wrangling by challenging his opponents to answer his questions. Whose likeness and whose inscription were on the Roman coinage?
With each new emperor who ascended to power, a new coinage was minted on the legal tender carried by all of his subjects to assert his authority. If they carried this coinage, and obviously they did; see Matthew 22:19-20, then Jesus’ questioners were, in effect, acquiescing to the emperor, at least as regards civil concerns. No doubt, the Pharisees and Herodians had also been the beneficiaries of the healthy economy which the Pax Romana/Roman peace encouraged. If they were so ready to acknowledge Caesar’s sovereignty when it was to their advantage, then they should pay up when Caesar demand tribute without forgetting God who is forever the supreme authority over and above the universe. Their argument had dissolved into worthlessness; Jesus had evaded the trap, causing his opponents to retreat for a time and to allow the Sadducees their turn at him cf. Matthew 22:23-33. If they were intelligent enough they should have realized that Jesus had given them cause to reflect. Rather than be entertained by Jesus’ one-upmanship it is better to join the Pharisees and Herodian so that we as well reflect on our inconsistence to our baptismal promises!
The word of God is not mere language; in his freedom God can choose any body to be his instrument including people like Cyrus the gentile king. Today God is asking for your collaboration. To be efficient we ought to be people of faith, hope and love. The human person is made in the image of God and the same human person mints money; then it follows that both the humanity and money belong to God. Money should not dictate our life style but rather the word of God. We are as well reminded to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.