Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle A
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
When I took my New Testament course during diaconate formation, I was assigned the book we start today for the second reading for a class presentation: Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. The day came to make presentations, and the professor told us that we’d start with the oldest books and work our way to the newer ones. He then turned to me and said, Tim, you're up. I had not, until that moment, realized that the words we just heard in the second reading are taken from the oldest Christian writings that we have retained in its original form. Paul is writing to the Thessalonians in about the year 51, or about twenty years after Jesus’ Ascension. And while the gospels were written later, they included source material that was older than this – we know this because of the similarities in them, that they must have had some common written material they referred to – but none of this earlier material has been yet discovered. So today and for the next four weeks we will read this letter to one of the first churches that Paul established, and will get a snapshot into what it was like in that early church and what issues they were struggling with.
And the early Christians had a hard go of it. This new idea of Christianity was different than anything that had existed to that time. The Roman pagans couldn't understand worshiping a weak man who said he was God – gods couldn’t, or at least wouldn't, be crucified. The Greeks thought it strange – there’s none of the philosophers' logic behind the words of Jesus. And the Jewish people resented it because, although acknowledging the same God and basic moral code, this new way was changing the character of what they considered to be the people of God from a people who were identified by their lineage, who their ancestors were, to a people who were identified solely by what they believed, or what Saint Paul will continually refer to throughout his letters, their faith. And so Paul today addresses the Christians in Thessalonica as “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” [1 Thes 1:1b NABRE]. He is a little more explicit about what it is and what it is not in his letter to the Galatians, which was written three or four years later: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” [Gal 3:28].
This is radically different than what had come before. It doesn't matter who you are, you are a Christian if you hear the teaching of Jesus and accept the grace he offers. The gospel today reinforces this idea. You need to know some background on what the Pharisees and the Herodians are talking about to fully appreciate it. One thing that the Pharisees found objectionable about paying the tax was that the coin that the Romans required them to use for payment was the stamped image of the emperor – in other words, the image of someone that that was considered to be a god. Well, he considered himself to be a god, and since he had the might of the Roman legions behind him, you’d better well too. And to make this very clear in everyone’s mind, stamped on the coins were the words, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” You can see these coins today in museums, at least in their original Latin. The first commandment clearly is at issue: “I am the LORD your God … You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness … you shall not bow down before them or serve them” [Exodus 20:2-5a]. So the fact that Jesus got the Pharisees to produce a coin that had an image of a false god, he essentially got them to admit that they, good Jews that they were, still carried these coins with them because they wanted to steer clear of those very real Roman legions that this self-appointed god commanded.
And so Christ is telling us that it is our faith that matters. Paying a tax using a coin that the rulers require means nothing other than one is paying a tax. Worshiping the image on the coin, not the possession of it, would be the lack of faith that would be sinful. That would be giving to Caesar what belongs to God because, unlike the coin, we are stamped with the image of the real God. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We must give ourselves only to God. And we do so because we have come to believe that we are children of God, we have faith by the grace of God. We don’t worship false pagan gods, even if that is what our family, or our city, or our empire worships, and we don’t worship the true God merely because we have inherited genetic material from the first Israelites. Christianity is based on a personal relationship with a God who came to earth to be among us, to speak to us, to leave his Spirit with us. The coins that make up your wealth matter not; the heart, soul, and body that make up our very being matter greatly, and it all belongs to God.
Returning to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Father Bill Leonard characterized Paul’s basic message in all of his letters was this: “become what you are.” By this he means that the Pauline letters always begin with a thanksgiving that those reading the letter have heard and accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ through baptism, have professed the faith – this we heard in todays reading. He spends the middle of his letters explaining what that means in the life of a Christian, and then ends the letter with encouragement to accomplish it by imitation of Christ. Today's readings are telling us to become what we are: we are all creatures made in the image of God, more valuable than the rarest gold coin, and we are to return our created selves back to the God whose image is on us.
As we continue with the Mass, let us receive our God and his graces through the Eucharist so that we are able to then return ourselves back to him. Let us listen carefully to what God is calling us to be, that we can become what we are and fulfill that calling in our lives. Then we will be giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, and giving God everything else.