10/13/2011 10:01:00 AM WORD OF FAITH It all belongs to God
BY REV. ROGER KARBAN
FROM A READING FOR OCTOBER 16, 29TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR '...From the rising of the sun and from the west, there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.' Isaiah 45:6
Those unfamiliar with the biblical world often turn to Sunday's Gospel (Matt 22:15-21) to argue for two realms in the world. One, the Church, belongs to God; the other, the state, belongs to humans. Neither should interfere or cross over into the other.
Nothing could be further from biblical faith.
Jesus' confrontation with His enemies is resolved by having recourse to basic first-century Middle East economics: The country's leader was looked upon as actually owning the currency circulating in his or her realm. If some of the coins circulating in Palestine are Roman denarii, the Roman emperor is their owner.
When the Herodians (who work for the occupying Romans) and the Pharisees (who despise the Romans) jointly ask Jesus about the legality of paying taxes to Rome, Jesus points out the obvious: The image and inscription on the coin are a sign of Caesar's ownership.
If Caesar wants his money back in taxes, one is obligated to return it. Neither the Herodians of Pharisees can argue the point.
The problem arises when Jesus ends his words with the command, "and repay to God what belongs to God." Some contend that, at this point, Jesus is dividing the world into Caesar's realm and God's realm, and there should be no overlapping.
More than 500 years before Jesus' birth, Deutero-Isaiah (Is 45:1, 4-6) turns heads and shakes theological pillars by referring to the Persian emperor Cyrus as "Yahweh's anointed." (The Hebrew word for anointed is "Messiah" - "Christ" in Greek. In other words, the prophet's calling him "Cyrus the Christ!")
The prophet promises his fellow exiled Jews in Babylon that Yahweh will soon return them to the promised land. Though they're glad, most are disturbed by the details of their return: Contrary to expectations, this new exodus will be led by an uncircumcised, Gentile pagan! Why couldn't a good Jewish boy be the new Moses?
Deutero-Isaiah knows Cyrus is conquering one country after another - and wherever this Persian leader goes, he grants the conquered people freedom to practice their own religion. The prophet's convinced that when Cyrus finally gets to Babylon, the exiled Jews will simply inform him that, to practice their faith and worship their God, they must return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.
God in all aspects
With a few modifications, that's what happened. But many scholars believe that before it happened, Deutero-Isaiah was killed by his own people for teaching that Yahweh's anointed would be Cyrus.
His ability to see God working through all wasn't shared by all. Deutero-Isaiah would have been the last person in Babylon to have pushed for a gulf between temple and state.
In a parallel way, Paul begins the earliest Christian writing we possess (I Thessalonians 1:1-5) by reminding his young Christian community, "Our Gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction."
In what does his "Gospel" consist? We presume it's the same as Jesus' "good news": that God is present, working effectively in every aspect of our lives. It's the basic formulation of Jesus' faith.
So, when Jesus says, "Repay to God what belongs to God!" He's presuming everything belongs to God - not just the coin, but the Herodians, the Pharisees and even Caesar. God works through everyone and everything.