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Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I hold,
subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, to open
the doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred. For the sake of
Jacob, my servant, and Israel my chosen, I have called you by your name.
I have surnamed you, though you have not known me. I am the Lord, and there
is none else; besides me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have
not known me; that they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the
west, that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no one
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the assembly of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We
always give thanks to God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers,
remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labor of love and patience
of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father. We know, brothers
and sisters loved by God, that you are chosen, and that our Gospel came
to you not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and
with much conviction.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in
his talk. They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying,
"Teacher, we know that you are honest, and teach the way of God in truth,
no matter who you teach, for you aren't partial to anyone. Tell us therefore,
what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus
perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you
test me, you hypocrites? Show me the tax money." They brought to him a
denarius. He asked them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?" They
said to him, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to Caesar
the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.
has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published
numerous articles and reports.
* Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.
For your convenience, the
Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the
Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright ©
1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.,
may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic
** The Web link to Pax Christi is provided as a service to our readers.
reaction to the gospel lesson today might lead us to want to cheer and
say, “Yeah, for Jesus.” He saw right through the trap that was being set
for him and sent his enemies away in humiliation and dismay. And that certainly
is part of what we hear in today’s gospel. If he said, “Pay the taxes,”
then he would be hated by the people who despised the Romans. But if he
said, “Don’t pay the taxes,’ he could be arrested for treason and be put
to death. But he escapes so easily because they’re such hypocrites and
he sees through their hypocrisy.
But that’s only a superficial understanding of today’s gospel. We have to go deeper. And if we do, I think we’ll find this passage very difficult for us, very challenging.
As I was trying to come up with a way to put into a context what was happening here and what Jesus is challenging us with, I thought of someone that I think about very often, Oscar Romero. On March 23, 1980, that was Palm Sunday that year, Oscar Romero preached a very powerful homily from the Cathedral of San Salvador. In that homily, he spoke out powerfully and strongly against the government of El Salvador and especially against the military leaders. He told the soldiers who were carrying out such violent repression against the people, especially the poor, “Do not obey your leaders. Lay down your arms. Don’t kill your own brothers and sisters any longer.” It was a very bold challenge against the government and against the military who were ruling that government. He stood up and said, “No,” and it cost him his life. Because the next day, as he was celebrating mass, it was a Monday evening, he was shot to death.
But why is that a context for today’s gospel?
If we listen deeply to the gospel, we recognize, first of all, how Jesus escapes this trap that’s been set for him. He sees right through their dishonesty. Even though they try to flatter him by calling him an honest man and always willing to speak the truth as he sees it, he rejects their flattery and calls them hypocrites.
When he asks for the coin, the denarius, and asks whose inscription is on it, whose picture, they say, “Well, it’s Caesar’s.” (Caesar who claims to be divine.) These Pharisees and Herodians are exposed for the hypocrites they are. They are carrying right within the temple a coin which has a graven image who claims to be god. So Jesus challenges them with their hypocrisy and their dishonesty and shows how they are acting against their own beliefs by having this coin in their pocket in the temple.
But then, when Jesus says, “Whose inscription, whose image,” they say, “Caesar’s.” So then Jesus says, “Well then, because his image and his inscription are on it, it belongs to Caesar.” Caesar has sovereignty over it, Caesar has power over it. It’s his, so give it back to him.
But those Jewish people, they were religious. They couldn’t miss the implication that Jesus had something deeper in mind. Whose image do we bear, whose image did they bear? They knew that every human person, every one of us, is made in the image and likeness of God. This means that God has total sovereignty over us and over all that we do. We are responsible only to God, as is all of creation. God is sovereign over all of creation, every person, everything in the created universe. And so, just as that coin that had Caesar image on it and showed his sovereignty over it, so too we bear God’s image and God’s sovereignty is over all of us.
So when you first hear what Jesus says, you might begin to think, “Well, some things belong Caesar and some things belong to God,” and then we have to try to sort out which is which. But it isn’t that way, everything belongs to God. And so we must be responsible to God and somehow, within that framework of our responsibility to God, we carry out our responsibilities to Caesar, to the state, to the government; but God comes first. God comes first.
We’re responsible to God. And that’s what Oscar Romero understood so well. The government was ordering those soldiers to do something evil, something wrong, and to carry out violence against the poor. So he had to challenge the government, saying, “No, no we will not obey your evil laws. Tell the soldiers, these youngsters, many co-opted into the army. You have to say no to those who tell you to kill. You must be responsible to God.”
So this is true of us right now and it’s a hard lesson, I think. It must have been hard for Oscar Romero. He was a person who had many friends in the government and many friends in the military leadership. He had known them before he ever became the archbishop. It must have been hard for him to speak out against them.
And it is hard for any one of us to think that perhaps, at times, we must say no to what our government wants us to do. We’re trained so often in the idea that we have to be patriotic, we must love our nation, and we must do whatever our leaders say is good for our nation. But if we accept that at face value, then we are rejecting the sovereignty that God has over us, before any nation, before any government.
We are living at a time when our nation, our government, is trying to lead us into war. Almost all religious leaders have said that this war is not just. Each of us has to make a decision and, perhaps, even move toward resistance. Some people get arrested because they know they can’t obey the government. Perhaps, we have to move even that far. But at the very least, each of us has to say, “God’s sovereignty is before the government’s sovereignty. And I must be responsive to God before I am responsive to any government leader, any government decree, any government declaration that we would go to war or any other thing that the government imposes upon us if it is against God’s law.”
So this is a very challenging thing that Jesus does today. He raises this whole question, “To whom are we responsible? Who is truly sovereign over us?”
The first lesson today reminds us of how God’s sovereignty extends over everything and everyone. To Cyrus, this Persian ruler who was not part of God’s people, one who did not even know God, God says, “I call you. I anoint you Messiah to my people.” God could do that because God is sovereign over everyone. It’s a very dramatic way of showing us how God is sovereign over everyone, over all of us.
Because it is so hard for us to sometimes challenge what others are doing or because it is so hard for us to challenge our government and what our government asks of us, we must pray that we will have the courage and, first of all, the wisdom to try to discern what is truly God’s way and what takes us away from God and God’s way. And then pray that we have the courage to do what God asks of us even if it is contrary to what our neighbors expect of us or our government asks of us. We must have the courage to follow God who is truly sovereign over our lives.
In writing to the church at Thessalonica, Paul congratulated them on their faith and their courage. He said, “You became followers of us and of Jesus when, on receiving the word, you experienced the joy of the Holy Spirit, even in the midst of great opposition, and you became a model. The faith you have in God has become news in many places and so we need say no more about it.”
My hope is that those of us who make up God’s community now, those of us who have heard the message of Jesus and have committed ourselves to follow him, just as those first Christians lived in Thessalonica, that just like they became a model for others, we might become a model for faith to others also. To those who live in this nation around us, that we would a model of disciples of Jesus and show his way, his way to change our world and to bring peace into our world.
If we become this kind of a model of a community of disciples of Jesus that is built on faith and on strong convictions and that the way of Jesus is the only way that will lead to peace, perhaps we can change the direction of our government and perhaps we can help be a model to others and we can help end the move toward war and bring true peace for our nation and for the world.
In the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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