Homily 29th Sunday Ordinary Time – 22nd October 2023
There is something about the kind of prophecy being offered in the first reading this weekend that seems a little farfetched, even strained. But perhaps it does not really matter whether or not God actually hand-picked Cyrus and sent him, purposefully, into Persia as a saviour for the Israelites. Perhaps all that matters is that in that event, the people affected saw meaning and acted on that meaning. They not only went home, but they did so renewed, rededicated to the law, firmly resolved to never again let the presence of God go unnoticed in their midst.
History, the flow of human events, is God’s. But it is his, not in that he manipulates the characters and events of history like puppets on a string, but rather in that he empowers his people to grow, to flourish, to become more and more his own, no matter what happens to them. The question for believers, in response to a movement of history, worldwide, or simply one’s own, is not “why did God do this?” but rather, “What does he want me to do in the wake of it.”
That was something of the challenge faced by Christ as he verbally fenced with the Pharisees and Herodians, two parties normally at each other’s throats. Their question, “is it right for us to pay the Roman tax, or not?” was a loaded one. The flattery with which it is introduced was not sincere. If he said, “Yes”, he would seem to be accepting the legitimacy of Roman domination as God’s will and would alienate the many and zealous Zionists in Israel. If he said “no”, he would be identifying his mission as just another of a long stream of political revolutionary movements, the sort of thing with which the Romans knew how to deal very well.
Christ’s response is an invitation to his listeners to clarify their vision of God’s design and their conviction that such a design is in fact God’s.
The kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar are both real; it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. That reality must be recognised and adopted to. But they are nowhere near of equal import, equal power.
The fact is that the kingdom of God, if it is clearly envisioned, keenly desired, can and will flourish under any political or economic conditions, be that exile in Babylon, under harsh Roman domination, or anywhere else.
The kingdom of God, and its growth, has very little to do with whom one pays taxes, under what sort of political system or on what economic level one lives. The fortunes of politics and economics come and go. There have been a thousand Babylon’s and Cyruses’, and there will be a thousand more. But the virtues of the kingdom must be constant and unchanging if they are of the kingdom of God.
To make a just society, we must renew our moral courage to stand up against error and evil, withstand embarrassment and ridicule, and speak out about God’s rights. Though we are advised not to be of this world, we must live in it. The true measure of our worth has to do with the likeness and inscription not on our coins, but on our person. As Cesar cast the denarius in his image, God has cast us in His. As Caesar sends out as wage and calls back in tax, God sends out bearers of his likeness and calls us back, demanding of us the sum of our lives.