In the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, some world powers and individuals have taken sides. Inclusively, religious leaders. This is not farfetched from the recent tweet of Reno Omokri bringing to consciousness the side taken by Pastor Adeboye in his tweet and how it was deleted in humility. In some occasions, conflicts expose our humanity, but Christ being human and divine was able to strike a balance between civil and religious obligations, with the end point of promoting peaceful coexistence in the society which is practically the mission of the Church.
Today the Holy Mother Church celebrates World Mission Sunday, as was decreed by Pope Pius XI in 1926, for every Church/institution/parish. The year 2022, we had the theme: “You shall be my witnesses” (Act 1:8), recalling the bond of every missionary and Christ himself, the first to be sent, as a missionary of the Father. This year, the theme of the World Mission Sunday is, “Hearts on fire, feet on the move” based on the story of the disciples who encountered Jesus on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). In the message of Pope Francis for this day, the two disciples were confused and dismayed, but their encounter with Christ in the breaking of the bread sparked in them the enthusiastic desire to set out again towards Jerusalem and proclaim that the Lord had truly risen.
The Pope exposed the three images in the gospel revealing how the disciples’ hearts burned within them as they heard the Scriptures explained to them by Christ, their eyes opened as they recognized him and their feet set out on the way. These images he said, reflects the journey of all missionary disciples. In view of this, the liturgy of today portrays how the church as missionary can coexist with the state without picking sides. Th first reading expresses how the state gave support to the church. In it, we see how God always influence earthly rulers, even those unaware of Him. In the context of this reading, the Jewish people experienced two major exiles.
The first was the Assyrian Exile in 722 BC, where Assyria forced the ten northern tribes into exile in Assyria. The ten tribes are sometimes called the lost tribes, because they became assimilated and never returned to their home land in any organized way. However, the background for this pericope is the Babylonian Exile in 587BC. When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and forced the Jewish people into exile. Many years later (539 BC), was the rise of Cyrus, the King of Persia (modern Iran). He will defeat Babylon and establish Persia as the superpower. His policies were much more enlightened than those of the Babylonians. He encouraged subject people to return to their culture, their traditions and including their religions. The exile lasted seventy years (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10).
These were painful years for the Israelites, because their city had been destroyed and they were captives in foreign land. God used King Cyrus to assist the Israelites. King Cyrus issued an edict that made it possible for the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. He even returned the temple vessels to the exiles for use in the new temple and provided financial support for their return (Ezra 6:205). God called King Cyrus by name, anointed him and used him to save and, restore Israel when he said, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I called you by your name…” (Is 45:4). God gave Cyrus great power, even though he was not a faithful worshipper, not for honoring Cyrus, but because Cyrus will be his instrument to free the Jewish exiles and to make possible the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
God used him as a means to an end in saving his people Israel. God used the earthly or political power of King Cyrus to exercise His divine power. God expressed his sovereignty, power and might through Cyrus when he said, “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (v.5). In the gospel pericope, the Pharisees attempted to entangle Christ as regards his sovereignty, power and might. Their goal is to destroy Christ’s influence, either by discrediting him in the presence of the crowds or by causing him to make a misstep that will get him in trouble with the Romans. With this, they send their disciples along with the Herodians who are in support of King Herod and in alliance with the Romans to pose a question to him. The Pharisees had no good relationship with the Herodians, but they were able to gang up in order to pull down Christ.
Their relationship with the Herodians had been distorted because the Jews were forced to pay taxes directly into the emperor’s treasury. However, some refused to pay this tax because they did not want to recognize Roman rule as legitimate. Some grudgingly payed it but practically every Jew hated it. Unifying to entangle Christ, they carefully drafted their question that allows only a yes-or-no answer, “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar or not?” (Mt 22:17). Their purpose is to limit Christ’s options so that he has no choice but to answer in a way that will compromise him. So, if Christ agreed the tax should be paid, He then seemed to deny the sovereignty of God over Israel, and He would lose popular support from the Jews. If He agreed that the tax should not be paid, He would openly declare Himself an enemy of Rome and be treated like a revolutionary. Either way, Christ will loose and his enemies will win.
Christ knew their intention was to entrap him with his words, of which he made it known to them. He rather demanded for a coin and on it was a head of Tiberius, the reigning Roman Emperor. Around his head was written the abbreviation for “Tiberius Caesar, the Divine Augustus.” On the back was the title “Pontifex Maximus,” declaring that Caesar was the high priest of the Roman Empire. The imagery aspect on the coin creates mindset of ‘worship to other gods’ of which the Jews are not comfortable with. Christ in his wisdom, did not pick side with the Pharisees or Herodians. He rather said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.”
Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:20-21). If we take advantage of the benefits of governmental rule, we are obliged to submit to government, as long as it does not infringe on our service to God. We are just unfortunate in this country that our taxes are not used to the maximum level. Notwithstanding, for the church and state to coexist, we cannot stop doing what is right because of the wrong of others. Simply put, Christ tells us to pay our taxes. He reminds us that while citizens respect and obey government, our ultimate loyalty belongs to God. The coin may carry Caesar’s image, but humans are crafted in God’s image. Thus, we owe everything to God and must prioritize his teachings, even when they clash with earthly laws.
Happy World Mission Sunday!