Commentary on the Readings: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
Engaged in the world, but not of the world
A human being does not live alone. One is part of a civilized society and should establish collaborative relationships with others. From the need to organize for the sake of coexistence, comes the need to determine the rights and duties to give to institutions, and to set ways and forms to contribute to the common good. It is not easy to determine what is right: Diverse interests come into play; various objectives to achieve are envisaged. There are those who claim favors, demand privileges, and inevitable tensions arise.
To further complicate the problem, there are relations between the state system and religious institutions with their principles, norms, customs, traditions, and indispensable claims. Many, feeling subjects of two competing powers—which often intrude each other, exchanging mutual accusations of pitch invasions—have their conscience torn. To resolve the conflict, there are those who choose fanatical and fundamentalist positions and attempt to impose their convictions; while there are those who renounce a confrontation from which they fear coming out defeated, would only place them on the margins.
In the famous Letter to Diognetus, composed around the middle of the second century A.D., wise and timeless principles are suggested: “Christians neither by country, nor language, nor customs are distinguished from other people. Living in Greece and other barbarian cities, as it happened, each one must adapt oneself to the customs of the place, in clothing, food, and rest. They witness to a way of wonderful and undoubtedly paradoxical social life. They live in their homeland, but as strangers; they participate in everything as citizens and detached from all things as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else and have children, but do not throw newborn babies. They share their meals, but not the bed. They dwell in the land, but they have their citizenship in heaven. They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws. To put it short, as the soul is in the body, so are Christians in the world” (Letter to Diognetus, The Manners of the Christians V, VI, 1).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Christians shine as lights in the world: exemplary citizens, consistent with their beliefs, respecting those of others”
In ancient times only important people could afford a great banquet. Kings organized them often for political reasons: inviting those with whom they wanted to form alliances or to strengthen bonds of friendship. The banquets celebrating certain recurrences or victory over enemies were particularly sumptuous (cf. Est 1:1-8; Dn 5).
In today’s reading, the prophet presents himself as the herald of a sensational announcement. Not a rulerof this world but God will give a banquet, of which he lists the menu: rich food, all kinds of tasty meats, fine and choice wines (v. 6) … stuff to overload the imagination of the poor people of Israel, who used to eat only once a day and not always.
Even the rabbis are delighted to quibble about the courses offered in this banquet. Starting from the factthat the Bible is reminiscent of a sea monster called Leviathan, who was killed by God and given “as meat to the people who lived in the wilderness” (Ps 74:14), they concluded that the main food of the righteous will be the meat of this mythical fish. It is for this reason that in Israel, even today, at the Friday evening dinner, whenthe Sabbath begins, it is customary to eat fish, to remind all pious people of the heavenly banquet that awaits them.
Who will be the guests? — the eager listeners anxiously asked. All the peoples of the earth, without exception, is the answer. All of them will be called to the same table. The people who hated each other before, who committed violence, who struggled to subjugate the land and the goods, will rejoice together.
Not only will they eat. They will witness extraordinary events and unheard facts will happen. The Lord willdrop the veil, he will destroy the pall cast over the people (v. 7) and everyone will be able to contemplate him, seated at the table next to them. Then he “will destroy death forever and will wipe away the tears from all cheeks and eyes …” (v. 8).
The prophet was not so naive as to think that one day biological death would no longer exist; rather he announced the demise of what is human death and defeat: life without meaning or ideals, the mockery of failure and pain, hunger, disease, exclusion. Anything that is “non-life” will be eliminated, “for Yahweh has spoken” (v. 8). In no other text of the Old Testament are found so extraordinary promises.
The banquet, of course, will be enlivened by music, songs, and dances. The reading concludes with the text of a hymn seemed composed to be rendered by the participants in chorus: “This is our God. We have waited for him to save us, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For on this mountain the hand of Yahweh rests” (vv. 9-10).
The prophet alludes to the Messianic times but did not realize the extent of the promises that, in the nameof God, he was doing. He never imagined that one day the Lord would indeed destroy death forever. Paul, enlightened by the events of Easter, instead, will understand it. He will write to the Corinthians: “When our perishable being puts on imperishable life, when our mortal being puts on immortality, the words of Scripture will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up by victory” (1 Cor 15:54).
The seer of the Apocalypse will understand that, at the appearance of the new heavens and the new earth, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4) as Isaiah had predicted.
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Today and for the next four Sundays, passages of the First Letter to the Thessalonians will be read. Thessalonica was a rich, commercial metropolis that stood in the inner part of the Gulf of Thessaloniki. It was named after the sister of Alexander the Great, wife of the general Cassander, founder of the city. It was protected by massive walls which, starting from the sea, surrounding the hill on which stood the Acropolis. The geographer Strabo describes it as “populous, carefree and open to all novelties, both good and bad.” Like all port cities, it was not a model of morality: prostitutes, vagrants, idle people, charlatans roamed the street, but it was also inhabited by honest and hardworking people.
Paul arrived there in 50 A.D. and, as was his custom, he announced Christ first of all to the Jews who gathered in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The results were rather disappointing; few believed his preaching. He had greater success when he preached to the Gentiles who adhered to faith in considerable numbers, among them also quite a few noble women (Acts 17:1-9).
After a few weeks, a turmoil caused by the Jews forced him to abandon the city hastily, before being able to explain to his disciples the central themes of faith; hence the belief that he had left behind a rather fragile community.
Even the successive stages of his journey were marked by difficulties and failures. At the Areopagus in Athens, he tried the approach with the intellectuals of Greece, but the experience was disappointing: “When they heard Paul speak of a resurrection from death, some made fun of him, while others said, ‘We must hear you on this topic some other time.’ But some joined him and became believers” (Acts 17:32-34).
From Athens, he came to Corinth, the city with two harbors, known around the world for the dissolute life of its inhabitants and therefore seemingly less suitable soil for the seed of the Gospel. Paul was discouraged, and he decided to talk about Christ in the synagogue only on Saturdays and spent the rest of the week on his own profession as a manufacturer of tents (Acts 18:1-4).
One day Silas and Timothy, companions of apostolic labors, came to Thessalonica. They brought back amazing and unexpected news. The Thessalonian community had developed, grown lush and had become a model of faith and practice of fraternal charity. They faced persecution, harassment, and the intimidation of non-believers. They enjoyed the esteem of the pagans for the integral life that the baptized were leading. All retained a nostalgic remembrance of Paul. They were immensely grateful to him because through him they had been introduced to the faith and consigned to Christ. They were eagerly awaiting his visit.
Startled, almost in disbelief, Paul had been listening to his friends. He took courage and decided to fully devote himself again to the proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 18:5). Still excited, he wrote, also in the name of Silas and Timothy, a letter to the Thessalonians.
That’s how the first book of the New Testament was born. We are in the year 51 A.D. In the first five verses taken from today’s reading, Paul confesses the joy he feels every time he thinks of the Christians in Thessalonica. In fact, he has heard that their community is well-grounded in faith, in hope and in charity (v. 3).
These three virtues are characterized and linked. The work of faith, first of all: the Thessalonians didn’t limit themselves to accepting and repeating some abstract formulas but have translated their faith into concrete actions, in diligent charity, in verifiable actions by all.
Their hope is unwavering; it is not diminishing in the face of any difficulty and trial, not even before the danger of losing their lives.
In the spiritual progress made by the community of Thessalonica, Paul sees the work of God and the power of the Spirit. He was discouraged because he had found his weakness but now rejoices, verifying how God manages to carry through his works.
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21
The passage’s final sentence is one of the most famous, but also the most enigmatic. It is not easy to establish the meaning, so it is not always mentioned apropos. It is sometimes used by those in power to ask the Church hierarchy not to meddle in political affairs. Other times these are the ones reminding the rulers to assert its right to defend and proclaim the values that flow from the Gospel. It was used, however, by those who supported the papal hierocracy and advocated the caesaropapism against those who defended the secular state. They also dreamt of subjecting the state to the religious power by sacralizing the institutions and justifying the temporal power of the Church. Someone, more simply, uses it as an invitation to give everyone what they deserve.
To understand the phrase, there is a need to place it in the context of the dialogue from where it came from.
The Emperor of Rome demanded of each of his subjects an annual monetary payment to the treasury. Those who had attained the age of fourteen (man), twelve (woman) and up to sixty-five years were obliged to pay. It was the tributum capitis or testatico for which the heinous censuses were done often provoking popular uprisings (Lk 2:1-5; Acts 5:37). Counting the people who belonged to God was equivalent, for the pious Israelite, to shielding one from the authority of the Lord and to enslaving one to a human power. For this reason, after the census, David felt his heart beat and said, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; I have acted foolishly” (2 S 24:10).
One day the Pharisees, accompanied by supporters of Herod, present themselves to Jesus. In a very respectful way, having recognized his love for the truth and his rejection of compromise, ask him a tricky question: “Master, we know that you are an honest man and truly teach God’s way. You are not influenced by others nor are you afraid of anyone. So tell us what you think: is it against the Law to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (vv. 16-17).
This alliance between the Pharisees and Herodians is strange. They first thought it impious to support the Roman occupation; the latter were instead supporters of Herod Antipas, the puppet with no personality, dominated by Emperor Tiberius, and they were collaborators. We find them allied against Jesus because he annoyed both. He was loyal and refused all forms of hypocrisy.
Their question is worded in such a way as to make it impossible for any loophole: If one is against the payment of taxes, he could be denounced to the Roman authorities as a subversive. (In fact, according to Lk 23:2, before Pilate they accused him of inciting the people not to pay taxes to Caesar). If he is in favor, he attracts the antipathy of the people who hate the Roman colonizers.
All taxes are reluctantly paid anywhere but, to make the tribute odious, a religious cause was added in Palestine. The money required had on one side a representation of the Emperor of Rome and the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus” and on the back the title “Supreme Pontiff” with the image of a seated woman, a symbol of peace, perhaps Livia, the mother of Tiberius. In 1960 about thirty pieces of these coins were found on Mount Carmel.
It is known that the Israelites disliked human images, prohibited by their law. Using the money of Tiberius meant to give one’s consent to a form of idolatry. Jesus is aware of the pitfalls that they have laid for him. He does not avoid the question. As he usually does, he skillfully leads the interlocutors at the root of the problem.
He wants them first to show him the money. They naively reach out under the tunic where they usually hide the money (clothes at that time had no pockets) and they present it to him. They do not realize that Jesus is playing with them: first, he asks for the money. It means that he does not possess it (for he does not even have a stone to lay his head; Mt 8:20), and if they pull it out, it means that they use it without any problem. They receive it for their services, and with it, they buy the products at the market. What’s more, the dispute takes place in the precincts of the temple (Mt 21:23), and in the holy place, and they do not bother to profane it by showing that image. They have scruples only when they have to pay taxes. After looking at the money Jesus asks, “Whose image is this?” “Caesar’s,” they say. “So—he concludes—give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” (v. 21).
The first message that Jesus wants to give is clear. It is a moral duty as well as civil to contribute to the common good with the payment of tribute. There is no reason that justifies tax evasion or theft of state assets. Whatever the policy and economic choice of the government, the disciple of Christ is called to be an honest and exemplary citizen. He is actively engaged in building a just society and shuns the subterfuge. He makes political choices that favor the weakest, not those that safeguard their own interests.
Writing to the Romans, Paul restates in more explicit terms the directive of the Master. We are at the beginning of Nero’s reign—the Emperor is in his twenties and for three years he initially governs in a lenient and moderate way. Here’s what the apostle recommends to the Christians in the capital: “Let everyone be subject to no authority that does not come from God, and the offices have been established by God. Whoever, therefore, resists authority goes against a decree of God and those who resist deserve to be condemned. It is necessary to obey not through fear but as a matter of conscience. In the same way, you must pay taxes and the collectors are God's officials. Pay to all what is due them, to whomever you owe contributions, make a contribution; to whom taxes are due, pay taxes; to whom respect is due, give respect” (Rom 13:1-7).
Jesus’ answer, however, is not limited to state the duty to contribute to the common good with the payment of taxes. He adds: “Give to God what is God’s.”
The verb he uses more precisely means “to return.” Looking to the present, therefore, he says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and return to God what is God’s.” They are not only holding back the money that should be handed over to the emperor, but they also seized illegally and unjustly, a property of God. They must give it back right away because he claims it; it is his.
Tertullian already in 200 A.D. realized that he was the person that was handed back to God. Creating him, in fact, he had said: “Let us make man in our image, to our likeness. So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him” (Gen 1:26-27).
If the coin had to be “returned” to Caesar because on it was stamped the face of his master, the person must be “returned” to God. The human being is the only creature on whom the face of God is imprinted. He is sacred and no one can take him as his own. Those who make them their own (enslave, oppress, exploit, dominate, and use them, as an object) should immediately return him to his Lord.
READ: The hostility between Jesus and the religious authorities built up day-by-day. Because of this, the Pharisees plotted with the Herodians on how to trap Jesus. They tried to trip him with a question that will either implicate Jesus on religious grounds or if not, on political grounds. Jesus sidestepped the trap with a clever reply.
REFLECT: If one were to settle the question as to whom our lives belong, one must look at the engraved image in our souls – whose would it be? Caesar’s or God’s who has shaped, known, and called us even before we were born? Let us give to God what belongs to God – our very lives.
PRAY: Let us ask that justice will reign in our land starting with ourselves and our community. Let us pray for a true sense of belongingness to God and his Kingdom.
ACT: To be just, we have to do just acts. Let us start by working for justice not just advocating it.