“Give to God What is God’s” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, October 22, 2023

So, who was this Cyrus, who is made such a fuss of by God in our first reading today? He was the king of Persia, who conquered the mighty Babylonian Empire in 538 B.C. and set free those nations who had been slaves of Babylon. This includes the people of Israel, conquered in 587 B.C, and taken off to exile in Babylon. Cyrus liberated the Jews, restored their homeland and ordered the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonian army. No other foreign monarch receives such honorable citation in the biblical literature (21 mentions of his name in the Old Testament) a sign of the great regard Cyrus held in the memory of Israel. 

At the same time, as we see in today’s reading, Cyrus was held aloft as an agent of God’s will. He is “anointed” as God’s chosen one. Jewish people believed that God controlled all events which happen in this world, good or bad. Therefore, they considered Cyrus, although not a believer in the Jewish faith, to be an instrument of God. The concept of accepting God working through non-Jewish people as his instruments was not new in Israel. The Jews considered that God ran the whole world, not just their small part of it, and that nothing happened without God either directing it or permitting it to happen. “I am the Lord, there is no other”, proclaims God in our first reading, and in the chapters of the prophet Isaiah leading up to it (King Kong). So, our responsorial psalm declares: “all the gods of the nations are idols” and only the Jewish God, Yahweh,  alone was to be worshipped and given glory and total honour.

 To worship God is to give him the total submission of oneself, to have him alone on the throne of your heart. We can love, honour, respect, admire, others, but only God is to be the Lord of our lives. Protestants mistakenly believe that we Catholics worship Mary, the Mother of God, but that is false. They see our statues and pictures of Mary , hear us praying to, and invoking her help and intercession on our behalf, know the place of honour and devotion so many of us have for  her, to the point where we address her as Queen of Heaven, and they think that we are making her a god. But the Catholic faith says that while we venerate Mary as the greatest human being born on earth, as we also venerate the saints in heaven, nonetheless we reserve our worship, the total submission of our lives, to God alone, revealed to us as the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, in the words of our second reading today. Yes, perhaps some devotion to Mary goes a bit over the top, but this is an excess born of love and appreciation of all that Mary did in God’s plan of salvation and that Jesus gave her to us to be our spiritual mother. I remember one Catholic apologist, responding to Protestant criticism of all this devotion to Mary, asking “Do you think Jesus honored his mother?”, to which the answer is certainly “Yes”. Then, he went on, why shouldn’t we honor her as well, since she is our spiritual mother?

Yet, when a woman called out to Jesus once, in the gospel of Luke, “blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus is quick to respond: “Blessed, rather, are those who hear and word of God and obey it” (Luke 11: 27-28). St Luke is the one who gives most attention and honoring of Mary of all the gospels, yet even he is at pains to stress that true blessedness, whether of Mary, or the saints, or any of us, comes from our willingness to hear the word of God for our lives and to obey it. 

This was a bit of a deviation from where I intended to go with this homily, but I think it is justified because this month of October is a special month when we honour Mary as Queen of the Rosary (October 7th) and pay her special attention and devotion. But she is not God, and we Catholics know it, or should know it.

 Which brings us to our gospel today. You know that Jesus’ opponents are setting a trap for Jesus, because the Pharisees, who above all, refused to have any dealings with the Romans because they are pagans, nonetheless bring along the Herodians to help them bait the trap, knowing the Herodians as associates of King Herod, were beholden to the Romans who put Herod in power and so kept them in power also. Though these two groups, the Pharisees and the Herodians, are absolutely opposed to each other, they are united by their hatred of Jesus. As someone once said: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.”

 The trap is set. If Jesus says that you shouldn’t pay taxes to the Romans, the Herodians will denounce him to Pontius Pilate and have him arrested. If, on the other hand, Jesus says they should pay the taxes, he will lose favor with ordinary Jews, who saw the Romans as their oppressors and who took their money and possessions at will, and left them struggling to keep them and their families from starvation. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. Jesus is, as we say, “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t”. The adroit way in which Jesus dodges the trap is brilliant. In asking for someone to show him a Roman coin, he gets one of the Pharisees to go into their own pocket and produce such a coin, which exposes the Pharisees of actually buying into the Roman system themselves, using their money and availing themselves, therefore, of Roman services, despite their claim to be above and beyond all such corruption. They had made concessions, without reflecting on the fact that they had compromised their religious standards, to the Roman-dominated society in which they lived. By producing the Roman coin, the Pharisees show that in practice they acknowledge the authority and accept the benefits of Roman government, of which this coin was a symbol.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. We benefit from the society in which we live. We therefore have a responsibility to pay our fair share of taxes to the government which provides those benefits, and to accept their authority over us.  (St Paul and Peter, in their New Testament epistles, make use of this gospel story to tell the Christian communities to whom they are writing, that they should pay taxes , since they are using the services provided by the Romans (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2: 13-17). But to respect another’s authority and obey them insofar as they don’t try to make us do something flagrantly immoral, is not the same as worshipping them.

 And this is Jesus’ point. “Give to God what is God’s”. The Pharisees have repeatedly tried to thwart Jesus as God’s emissary, someone who stands in God’s place and speaks and acts with his authority as his divine Son. Here Jesus moves away from the Caesar question and calls for a basic respect for God’s will. This is not a question of God’s over-arching authority being shared with Caesar. The response to God must be total, not in any way divided. Questions of civil authority are secondary, even peripheral, in submitting totally to the sovereignty of God, the concerns of lesser authorities will be met. But allegiance to God must be seen as absolute. Even Jesus himself, after asking his heavenly Father, to spare him crucifixion, nonetheless concludes his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane by submitting: “Fathernot my will, but yours” (Mark 14:36). And of course, we all remember Mary’s response, when told by the angel Gabriel that it was God’s will for her to give birth to his Son: “Behold the servant of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to his word.” (Luke 38). Brothers and sisters, can we afford to say any less?