Oct. 22, 2023
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3-5, 7-10
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Caesars come and Caesars go. The “peasants” remain. They work the land. They pay their taxes. They marry, have children and die. This week’s Gospel is a word of hope for them.
One thinks, for example, of the people of Poland, ruled once by kings, then by federation, then partitioned between the rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria; self-governed for a time, before being occupied by Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, and now governed as a democratic republic. All the while, the “peasants” remain.
The people of the region of Palestine (from the Hebrew, “Pelesheth” — “Philistia, land of the Philistines,” originally known as the land of Canaan) have been ruled over the centuries by the Philistines, the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Israelites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Britons, the Israelis, the Jordanians and the Palestinian Authority, led by either Fatah or Hamas, depending on the region. The rulers change: some evil, some good, some somewhere in between. But the “peasants” remain.
They are Bedouin Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Palestinian Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Samaritans. Almost all of them worship the God of Abraham. Surely some of their teenagers are agnostic. They work the land, pay their taxes, marry, have children and die.
Two weeks ago, Hamas, the current rulers of a southern strip of this region thought it right to murder, rape, behead, pillage and burn their Israeli neighbors to the north, killing 1,300 men, women and children. The leaders of Israel will have to respond. Psalm 79 may capture their state of mind. Many “peasants” will die, not least because Hamas uses them as human shields.
Seeming sages will debate as to whether and how the people ought to go on paying their taxes, both literally and proverbially — to Hamas, to Israel, to Fatah. It is an age-old question, and a pungent one — one that the Pharisees joined with the Herodians to ask of Jesus in the same region some two millennia ago as they grappled under Roman occupation. The Pharisees indignantly would have demanded an answer in the negative; the Herodians, one in the affirmative. Both came at once to “entrap” Jesus in the folly of it all, and so enjoy imposing what little subjugation was in their purview to inflict.
But Jesus is Lord. There is no other. (cf. Isaiah 45:5-6) He makes “kings run in his service, opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred.” (cf. Isaiah 45:1) In a simple gesture — “show me the coin” (Matthew 22:19) — he answers their question and disarms their trap, lifting the gaze of all, both ruler and peasant alike, above the endless strife of worldly powers.
“Whose image is this and whose inscription?” he said. (Matthew 22:20) “Caesar’s,” of course, they reply. “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21)
The image (“eikon”) of Caesar marked a coin. (cf. Matthew 22:20-21) The image (“eikon”) of God marks man, both male and female. (cf. Genesis 1:26-27) The implication is clear. Let all repay their lives to the living God who stamps his image on them. This is a tribute that applies in every age, in every place, to every person — the rulers and the ruled — no matter who holds dominion at a given time. It applies in good times and in bad, under just rule and under oppression. And it is a tribute that sets people free, with everlasting returns, no matter their situation in life.
It is a tribute that St. Paul learned how to offer through the many trials he endured for the sake of God’s name, as he entered more and more deeply into union with the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection — as he became more fully the icon, the image, of Christ, the true man. “For,” he writes, “I have learned in whatever situation I am, to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
This is the freedom of the sons of God. It makes sense only in Christ, who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death into new and everlasting life in him. It lifts up “peasants” and humbles “emperors.” It unites all humanity, laboring together under the wages of sin, our universal oppressor. And as we await the return of our true King, it causes us, meanwhile, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that it inspires, to “shine like lights in the world, as (we) hold fast to the word of life.” (Gospel Acclamation; cf. Philippians 2:15-16)