The Gospels often depict Jesus in conflict with those who are in positions of leadership, both religious and political. A close look will show that Jesus does not challenge legitimate authority, but only the way individuals exercise it. In an upcoming episode, he counsels those around him to heed the Scribes and the Pharisees, because they occupy “the chair of Moses” (Mt 23:2). Today he directs them, and us, to fulfill lawful civic duties.
Both the first reading and the gospel passage for today allude to the very difficult political realities of the times. In both instances the people are living under foreign domination. The early Israelites were ruled by the Persian king Cyrus; the Jews at the time of Jesus were occupied by the Romans.
We should remember that the Israelites took great pride in being the nation that God had liberated from foreign rule. Their very identity was synonymous with freedom. But here they are, captive and subject to nonbelievers. The biblical writers do not speak against the captors. On the contrary, both Cyrus and Caesar seem to have a role in God’s plan for the people.
Isaiah refers to Cyrus as the anointed of the Lord, a title usually ascribed to the Davidic king. Furthermore, this Persian king’s right hand is grasped by God, signifying the conferral of royal authority. In other words, Cyrus exercises legitimate authority over the people of God, despite the fact that he is a nonbeliever. God works through this king, and God’s plans unfold through him, even though he is unaware of it.
It was Cyrus who issued the decree that all captured peoples should be allowed to return to their own lands and take up their lives once again, though still subject to the jurisdiction of the Persian empire. Thus the people of God left Babylon, the land of their exile, and returned to Israel.
The Gospel story is a bit more complicated than it might appear. The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees try to entrap Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” That is, “Should we recognize the authority of this nonbeliever?” If Jesus answers no, he appears to be politically insubordinate. If he answers yes, he denies Israel’s boast that it is a people free from all loyalties other than those that bind them to God.
Jesus turns their attempt to entrap him against them by asking for a coin appropriate for paying the census tax. They expose their own complicity with the ruling powers by producing a Roman coin. Such coins did not comply with Israel’s prohibition against casting graven images. The Scribes and Pharisees are carrying images of the Roman ruler who claimed to be a god. Without either condoning or condemning the character of Roman coins, Jesus instructed them to fulfill lawful civic duties.
In these two accounts we see that fidelity to one’s religious tradition and allegiance to secular powers is not only possible but is also God’s will for us. They show us that as delicate as the balance between these two very different loyalties might be, they need not be in conflict.
Also prominent in these readings is the theme of insider/outsider. This dynamic was very significant in all of Israel’s history, and it has taken on great importance in our own day as well.
Many groups are somewhat wary of “outsiders.” Those who are not “insiders” could disrupt our lives; they might even be enemies. This is particularly true of groups that are in any way vulnerable. An outsider threat might undermine what little stability the group enjoys. Both of today’s readings come from times when Israel was politically vulnerable, dominated by a stronger nation. It stands to reason that they might not be open to outsiders. Add to this their conviction that they alone were God’s chosen people, and we might detect an attitude of religious superiority.
Today’s readings challenge the possibility of such an attitude. The people may have viewed Cyrus and Caesar as threats, but God certainly did not. In fact, they became instruments in God’s plan. These men may not have believed in the God of Israel, but that did not stop God from using them for good. When it comes to God’s plan of salvation, there are no real outsiders. All women and men of good will are insiders.
We live in a time when political and religious differences pit us against each other, when persons of another persuasion or faith are considered outsiders or nonbelievers. Whenever we hold such views, we fail to see the good will of others, and we might overlook the good that God is working—for our own benefit—through the agency of those others. We may, in fact, be making ourselves outsiders to the grace of God active in our world today.