GOD OR CAESAR
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6,
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5,
Church and state…religious freedom vs. government interference…God or Caesar. Today’s readings, dealing with the relationship of God’s people with civil authority, are very timely indeed! This topic is right out of the daily news. We know, of course, that our ultimate duty of worship and obedience is to God alone, but where exactly does our duty to be faithful citizens fit in? In today’s readings the word of God has something to say to us about that.
Who is this Cyrus, whom the Lord calls “his anointed?” Cyrus the Great was the king of Persia in the 6th century BC, who conquered Babylon and ended the Babylonian Captivity of the Jewish people. Cyrus was not a Jew but rather a pagan. He was nevertheless used by God to be the protector and deliverer of God’s people. This is yet another example of God using whomever he wills to accomplish his plans and purposes. For this reason, Cyrus receives much praise in the Scriptures. Today’s first reading is a good reminder that God can use anyone, even non-believers, to protect, defend, and promote his own people.
The gospel relates how the Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus with a tricky question about whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus manifests here the gift of a “word of wisdom” in order to give an answer without falling into the word trap set for him. His answer indicates that we have to live in this world and submit to the demands of legitimate civil authority. But we have to keep our priorities straight. Caesar is not Lord. Many early Christians died rather than profess Caesar’s lordship.
The second reading today begins St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Some key words stand out: love, endurance, chosen. St. Paul reminds us that we are “loved by God,” and chosen for his purposes (even as Cyrus was). “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.” This sounds like the recipe for an outstanding sermon: the word of God spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and with much conviction!
“THE KING’S GOOD SERVANT, BUT GOD’S FIRST”
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans sheds more light on today’s readings. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). In this chapter, St. Paul exhorts the paying of taxes to whom taxes are due (Rom. 13:7).
It’s clear that Jesus did not come to overthrow the civil order. But Jesus did tell Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). In this regard, I think of St. Thomas More who died a martyr at the orders of King Henry VIII of England.
Thomas More said, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” Lawyer and former Chancellor of England, St. Thomas More obeyed his earthly ruler until there was a clear and inescapable conflict with God’s law, then he obeyed God first, instead of the king. And, if it ever comes to that, may we all do likewise.