22Oct 22 October. 29th Sunday in OT

Saint John Paul II, Pope

We live in a very challenging pluralist world. Only the grace of God and the depth of our convictions can help faith to thrive in our society. But throughout history faith has survived in some dire circumstances. It was never totally easy to serve God.

1st Reading: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6

Providence appointed king Cyrus to liberate Israel from the exile in Babylon

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him, and the gates shall not be closed:
“For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west,
that there is no one besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5

Paul assures his readers that he prays for them and is glad for their zeal as converts

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21

Jesus refused to be drawn into a sterile argument, about paying taxes to Caesar

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that belong to him, and to God what belongs to God.”


See Readings in the JB version,
Also  Sunday Readings in Irish.

What belongs to Caesar?

Kieran O’Mahony

The relationship between religion and public life is perplexing. In some societies, even today, there is virtually no difference between the two. In  more secular societies, any public expression of religious conviction is unacceptable. An appropriate distinction and even separation needs to be made, as indeed Jesus does make to-day in the Gospel. But  there is bound to be some crossover. Religious faith informs our values — and in society today policies and laws must be grounded, not exactly in a particular faith, but nevertheless in real values.

For his exegetical comments on today’s readings, click here.


 Political Horizons

Rowan Williams

There are wider horizons for the politician who seeks to be more than just a manager of the state’s business, an instrument of collecting Caesar’s taxes. Good government from a Christian point of view is about recognising and promoting human dignity. … Merely giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar –  is not by itself sufficient for a sustainable society or a trustful one. At best it may create a controlled, managed social order. For a social model focused on the flourishing of committed and creative citizens, we need a strong basis for affirming the non-negotiable dignity in all human beings. As an individual you may or may not share the perspective of faith; but in the difficult years ahead it will be worth remembering that giving to God what belongs to God is to promote human possibilities that we all need to witness and in some degree share.

When the voice of God is silenced

[abridged from Gordon Linney, Irish Times, Oct 21]

One hundred years ago this month, the Russian Revolution was reaching its climax. When the Bolsheviks finally prevailed, they promised “peace, land and bread” to the working class proletariat. As Rev. Linney writes, “The new regime was anti-religion, and within months churches and monasteries were closed and the buildings put to secular use, their bells silenced and in many cases taken down and treated as scrap metal.”

Bells had a special place in Russian religion and the silencing of the bells represented for many the silencing of the voice of God himself as a harsh winter of persecution began. There would be no place for the things of God; the new regime demanded all.

Our Gospel today deals with the tension between one’s duty to the state and one’s duty to God. In a trick question, Jesus is asked if it is right to pay taxes to Caesar. Using a coin bearing an image of Caesar he says that we should give to Caesar what belong to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. That would not have been easy in Stalinist Russia.

The desire to silence the voice of a demanding God is not confined to brutal regimes or indeed politics. History has many examples even of religious bodies having the same inclination when it suits them. But however it is done, the nation or people that abandons its spiritual heritage and values is much the poorer for it. And that is a foreboding issue in our western world today.

In the early post-Revolution years Nikolai Berdyaev spoke out on the issues of his time and wrote prophetic words which resonate with the economic, political and religious confusion reigning in our world today. “The present state of the world calls for a moral and spiritual revolution, revolution in the name of personality, of man, of every single person. This revolution should restore the hierarchy or values, now quite shattered, and place the value of human personality above the idols of production, technics, the state, the race or nationality, the collective.”

Berdyaev presages the insecurities of today’s world where increasing numbers, especially of young people, feel ignored and undervalued. Perhaps this is what happens when what belongs to God is ignored and the voice of God is silenced.

Rendering to Caesar

No sooner did the fall of the Berlin Wall mark the end of the Cold War than another chasm began to split our world, a clash between the Muslim world and what was once the Christian West. The Islamic world has seen an alarming growth in violent fundamentalism. Fanatical splinter groups are seeking to impose the Sharia law of the Koran as the law of the state. The United States and several European countries feel threatened, particularly France, with its large Muslim population and close historical ties with Algeria. Muslims demands that their schoolgirls be allowed to wear the veil in French public schools. Since people often adopt the attitudes of their adversaries, Muslim fundamentalism is soon matched by a noticeable “move to the right” in western countries. Now even  moderate parties are calling for tighter immigration laws. The signs for the future are ominous, to say the least.

Such a clash between religion and the secular state is not new. The story of the Christian West is largely a history of this conflict. For the first few centuries of its existence, Christianity was fiercely persecuted by the state, and many were martyred for refusing to worship imperial Rome. That changed with the conversion of emperor Constantine, when Christianity became the state religion. Now the boot was on the other foot. The high point of Church dominance came at Canossa  when an excommunicated emperor humbly knelt in the snow and submitted to the pope to regain his imperial crown. In the Caesar-God contest, that round went to those who claimed to speak for God. Throughout the Middle Ages churchmen tightened their influence on the secular domain. With the Reformation upheaval five centuries ago the process began to reverse. The French Revolution was a major turning point in favour of state control. Napoleon made the point forcefully by taking the imperial crown from the pope’s hands and placing it on his own head. Since then the state has clawed back all the ground once claimed by the church.

The famous directive  to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” is a particular challenge to our world right now. While its principle is unambiguous, its application in particular circumstances is quite another matter. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives three instances where citizens are obliged in conscience to refuse obedience to civil authority: when the laws are “contrary to the moral order, to fundamental human rights and to the teachings of the gospel. The principles are clear; but how to apply them when rights seem to clash?

The complexity of this may make it an unsuitable topic for the pulpit. What the preacher can and must do, is advise believers to act in a Christian way in all circumstances; to discern between right and wrong, and to choose the right. And no matter how deeply we hold our convictions or how warmly we espouse their causes, never to resort to violence on their name. Military crusades, whether modern or medieval, have no backing from the Gospel. The end never justifies the means.

We live, even in Ireland, in a world of pluralism. There are other people living here whose principles and beliefs differ radically from ours. The state must also respect them. Our only resort is persuasion, which is a gentle art requiring patience and respect. We best persuade by living the Gospel to the full, remembering that “the anger of man works not the justice of God.”

An observant tax-collector

Before being called to be one of the twelve Apostles, Saint Matthew was a tax collector operating in a customs house, somewhere in the north of Galilee. Since this profession required that he be able to read, write and especially keep records, these skills he would put to good use in writing his gospel account of Jesus’ mission. Matthew’s literary style may be more artificial than that of Saint Luke, but there is no doubt that his story today is truly dramatic. The question put to Jesus, whether it was lawful for Jews to pay tribute to Caesar, gives a clear insight into the minds and strategy of the Pharisees. They wanted to walk Jesus into a conflict with the Roman authorities, or, failing that, to discredit him before his own people. They sent others to ask the question, while the leading Pharisees stayed in the background.

The flattery paid to Jesus by this delegation, praising his honesty and fearless disregard for rank and status — all this was meant to lower his guard. Then the trap was set: “In your view, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Were he to answer, “Pay the tax,” he would stand accused of siding with the Roman oppressors. If he advised non-payment, he could be arrested by the Roman authorities. His reply, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” left the matter in suspense, as it did not affirm the right of the Romans to rule Israel, nor did it precisely state what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.

Jesus left the claims of God and the state to be decided by the conscience of each individual, as they still are to this day. But there remains his warning (within the Sermon on the Mount) that “no one can serve two masters; one cannot be the slave of both God and wealth” (Mt 6:24). Wealth was seen by many as created by God, and bestowed on kings and leaders who had special tasks. But the prophets did not regard property as an unmixed blessing. “Woe to those who join house to house and field to field, until everywhere belongs to them,” Isaiah warned (Is 5:8), and Jesus said, “alas for you who are rich; you are having your comfort now” (Lk 6:24). The world’s resources were created by God for the benefit of all human beings without exception, and this ideal must limit the right to private property. It is the task of government to impose balanced policies that promote the common good of the whole population. Taxation was and is still one of the main ways to achieve this balance of rights.

The defender of the poor

[José Antonio Pagola]

Behind Jesus’ back, his enemies prepared a dangerous trap for him. The trap is well thought out: «Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?». If he answers negatively, they will be able to accuse him of rebellion against Rome. If he justifies the payment of tribute, he will end up discredited by those poor farmers who are oppressed by those taxes, those he loves and defends with his whole might. Jesus’ answer has been summarized throughout the centuries in these terms: «Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s». Few of Jesus’ words have been cited as much as these. But they are often distorted and manipulated by interests very far from those of the speaker himself, the great defender of the poor.

Jesus isn’t thinking of God and of the Roman Caesar as two powers that can demand, each in their respective spheres, dominance over their subjects. Like any faithful Jew, Jesus knows that to God alone belongs the earth and all that is contains, the world and all its inhabitants (Ps. 24). What could belong to Caesar that doesn’t come from God? Aren’t all the subjects of the empire also sons and daughters of God?

Jesus doesn’t discuss the different positions held various groups in that society about taxes paid to Rome and their significance: if they are carrying the money of the taxing-master in their pockets, then they should fulfill those obligations. Instead he reminds them of something that no one has asked him about: «Give to God what belongs to God». That’s to say, don’t give to Caesar what belongs only to God: the life of God’s sons and daughters. As he has repeated over and over to his followers: the poor are God’s special ones, God’s Reign belongs to them. No one should abuse them.

We must not sacrifice people’s life, dignity or happiness to any power. And surely today no power sacrifices more lives and causes more suffering, hunger and destruction than that tyranny of a faceless economy without truly human purpose that, according to Pope Francis, the powerful of the earth have succeeded in imposing. We can’t remain passive and indifferent to this, stifling the voice of our consciences even while practicing the rituals of religion.

Saint John Paul II, Pope

Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005), was the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century Dutch Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523). Born in Krakow, Wojtyla was just out of his teens when the brutality of Nazi invasion and racist oppression swept over Poland. His zeal as a priest, and later archbishop of Krakow, was admired by Pope Paul VI, who appointed him to his advisory commission on the ethics of birth control. As pope, Wojtyla sought to improve the Catholic Church’s relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church, Judaism and Islam. Strictly conservative in his moral teaching but reformist for social change, he helped to end communist rule in his native Poland and most of eastern Europe. He vigorously resisted the growth of Liberation Theology as being too close to Communism. As a gifted linguist and a charismatic public speaker, Wojtyla became the most travelled pope in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate and canonising more saints than all of his predecessors during the preceding five centuries. His papacy (1978-2005) was the second longest in history after Pope Pius IX (1846 to 1878). Just eight years after his death he was canonised in 2013 by his successor, Benedict XVI.

5 Responses

  1. Kevin Walters

    “What the preacher can and must do, is advise believers on the obligation of Christian behaviour in all circumstances”…….

    “And they could not take hold of His words before the people: and they marvelled at His answer, and held their peace”

    It is said that many will praise the words of a sermon, who are not been commanded by the doctrines within it.
    Recently I have visited several sites on the internet and have observed that many Catholics appear to be confusing ‘love’ with the Love (Will) of God especially those under fifty years of age.
    “The Truth” appears to have become the serving of one’s ‘own truth’ many appear rudderless

    I believe that this has come about due to dishonesty within the clerical system, in that it has compromised the Truths within the Gospels, partly due to the fear of loss of the laity as in Hummane Vitae.

    But what if God is preparing the birth of a Church that will be truthful with herself.
    One that proceeds and leads in humility, openly acknowledging her failings before God and all her children.
    Please consider continuing in my Post @1 in the link
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    “The complexity of this issue may render it unsuitable topic for the pulpit. What the preacher can and must do, is advise believers on the obligation of Christian behaviour in all circumstances.” Complexity, you posit? How is this complex? You provide the simple answer:

    “We best persuade by living our Christian lives to the full, remembering always that “the anger of man works not the justice of God.””

    Where there is war, there is anger. To think that this is done with full participation of the Catholic faithful, in passive observance, all the while tax collection becomes the base cause for structural violence the world over.

    “It is the task of government to seek balance between policies that will help the common good of all the citizens. And taxation is still one of the most common means of achieving this.” This is but one of their tasks and the efficiency with which it should be measured is through the growth of the middle class – where it recedes and opulence grows, government no longer exists. It becomes a veiled tool for the elite.

    Perhaps when Jesus muttered his “render” comment, he was advocating for a money-less society. These recurring anomalies in the behaviour of men do not exist in a money-free society.

  3. Pádraig McCarthy

    Jesus was speaking in the Temple (Matthew 21:12), where graven images were most especially forbidden and sacrilegious. The Herodians were supporters of King Herod, who ruled by permission of Rome. The Pharisees would not be of that mind. Yet they came together in a joint conspiracy against Jesus.

    The tax was imposed under severe penalty. When Jesus was about ten years of age, a group led by one Judas revolted against the tax, and they were crucified.

    The tax was a denarius (one day’s wages). The image of Tiberius Caesar was surrounded by the inscription: “Augustus Ti(berius) Caesar Divi Aug(gusti) F(ilius)” “The August Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” See Kieran O’Mahony’s notes in the link above to see the coin. The inscription said that Tiberius was son of a god.

    To carry the coin into the Temple was sacrilege, and yet they (probably a Herodian) had one. Jesus asked what was the image and inscription. Matthew gives their answers only about the image. Those present would know the inscription. Perhaps they avoided speaking the words of the inscription, to avoid such a heinous statement within the Temple; or perhaps they spoke it, and Matthew avoids repeating the words.

    When Jesus says “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God”, the clear impact of his words is that Caesar is not God.

    This, combined with the first reading from Isaiah about Cyrus, indicates that, even though neither knows the true God, this does not impede the work of God through an emperor such as Cyrus or Caesar,. The first reading concludes: “so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

    What Jesus says is implicit treason, although perhaps not recognised as such.

    The gospel reading is not about separation of Church and State as we might think nowadays. It points to the real order of things. No king, no State, no politician, is to be made a god. We have seen what damage can be done when the State tries to become the supreme (divine) authority, and rectitude is in following orders.

    The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights pointed to the experience of the Second World War, when “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” It declared: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Neither State nor UN has a right to bestow or withdraw inalienable rights; no State has the right to declare that any human being, at any stage of life, is less than human, or that a human life is not worthy of life. We declare inalienable rights. They continue to be violated, but the Declaration stands to shame us. We pray that all political authorities, like Cyrus, will be open to be channels of God’s action, whether they recognise it or not.

    The words of Jesus have deep political implications.

    Each human being is made in the image and likeness of the eternal God. The inscription is “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on the tablets of your living hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3)

    The good news is that the worth of each of us is not measured by the coins we carry, or by our credit cards, nor by any position of authority we may hold, but in our inalienable identity and dignity as human beings, bearing the image of God, and that God can work through every human being, including those who know not God.

  4. Joe O'Leary

    Thanks, Pádraig, for that very helpful comment.

  5. Kevin Walters

    Lloyd @ 2
    “These recurring anomalies in the behaviour of men do not exist in a money-free society”

    If only it was as simple as that Lloyd, money may be tainted but it is the evil within men’s hearts that does the tainting.

    Pádraig @ 3
    A very informative comment; thank you
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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