It's not unheard of that people will use a
biblical text to defend the very position the sacred author condemns in the
text. This is how some have employed Sunday's Gospel (Mt 22: 15-21).
Jesus' words, "Give to Caesar what is
Caesar's, but give to God what is God's!" have often been presented
as the biblical basis for our modern division between church and state,
excusing people of faith from concerning themselves with things political.
Those who interpret those words that way seem
to believe there are parts of the universe where God's presence and
concern are rarely found. Nothing could be further from Matthew's
His narrative revolves around Jesus' adroitly
sidestepping an ingenious trap. Natural enemies have discovered a common
enemy: Jesus. Pharisees, among other things, insist on a strict division
between Jews and Gentiles; Herodians, on the other hand, work for the
Gentiles who govern Israel.
Their plan is simple. If Jesus says, "Don't
pay the Roman tax," the Herodians will have Him arrested. If He says,
"Pay the tax," the Pharisees will see to it that He loses all
credibility with His fellow Jews.
Jesus avoids their trap by getting His enemies
to admit something presumed in ancient economics: The civil leader actually
owns the money everyone uses. In this case, if it's Caesar's coin -
proven by his image and inscription - and Caesar demands it back in taxes,
then you'd better return to Caesar what is Cae-sar's.
It's important for Jesus' ministry that He
adds the last statement: "Give to God what is God's!" "God's
realm" isn't meant to contrast with "Caesar's realm." It's
just Jesus' way of saying, "Don't forget that everything is God's
- you, the coin and Caesar."
How could He teach anything else? His entire
mission is rooted in opening people's eyes and ears to perceiving God
working in their lives in ways and places they had never before noticed.
In trying to convey the pervasiveness of God's
presence, Jesus is following in the footsteps of His prophetic predecessors.
Deutero-Isaiah must have blown Jewish minds when, during the Babylonian
Exile, he delivered the oracle found in the first reading (Is 45: 1, 4-6).
In Israel's sixth century before Christ,
Yahweh was their God. Other people and countries had their own gods, less
powerful, concerned and involved than Yahweh, but gods who actually existed.
Yahweh, supposedly, had no power or influence in the territory of another
Deutero-Isaiah conveys a new image of Yahweh:
"I am Yahweh and there is no other, there is no God beside me."
Not only can Yahweh help the Chosen People in Babylon, but the Babylonian
gods don't even exist! That means Cyrus, the Persian emperor on whom the
prophet bases his hopes of liberation from exile, is controlled by Yahweh
and not by his Persian gods.
Deutero-Isaiah not only proclaims this, but
also goes further, having Yahweh call Cyrus "His anointed." This
uncircumcised, pagan Gentile dictator has become Yahweh's messiah.
Both Jesus and Deutero-Isaiah believe that our
experience of God's presence, power and methods of salvation must always
That's why Paul can marvel at how God, in
Jesus, is working through his Gentile converts in Thessalonika (I Thes 1:
1-5). In the first lines of the earliest Christian writing we possess, the
Apostle is amazed at how God has broken through the God-limiting-barriers we
hu-mans have erected.
"Our preaching of the Gospel," he
writes, "proved not a mere matter of words for you but one of
What similar walls would our sacred authors
expect us to be tearing down today?