The Hidden Hand
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr Jonathan Fleetwood sees the hand of providence at work in even the most corrupt political systems.
Today’s first reading and the Gospel reflect on the Jewish people living under two separate repressive regimes, which are five hundred years apart. Isaiah in the first reading, a member of the forced resettlement of a previous king, sees the present King of Persia, Cyrus the Great, as a potential liberator. The forced separation from home will end. It will be possible to return to Palestine.
The previous verses to today’s first reading prophesy that there will be a return to Jerusalem and that the Temple will be reinstated. This indeed did happen and Cyrus even returned the silver and gold taken from the old Temple. The Temple would be rebuilt. Cyrus did authorise the building of a new Temple. Cyrus is a liberal and enlightened ruler. Isaiah calls him “shepherd” and “anointed” (messiah, an unusual high title for a foreigner).
It is important to see the context in which Isaiah sees Cyrus. Cyrus may be the lordly providence over the humans in a vast empire, but himself falls under the providence of God. God is working through him, though he does not know the one who calls him. God is the creator. God is the sourcing of all life and all living things, all humans, Jewish or not. The inner dynamic of God’s presence through his Spirit is working silently away. It calls for recognition.
In the Gospel, Jesus is tested by an ensnaring question about his allegiance or opposition to the repressive Roman regime ruling the country. The Pharisees want to hear him speak his opposition. They bring along Herodian informers (lots of informers are known or suspected by their targets). The informers will carry the news to the authorities and get Jesus into trouble. The question is: Is it lawful to pay the Roman poll tax? This is a specific tax, not one that could be paid in kind. Other taxes were property taxes and customs taxes. This one is to be paid in a specific coin, not any old coin. Other Greek and Jewish coins were circulating, but not tax-worthy. Paying the coin gets you on the Roman database, the census, as a colonial subject. The denarius spoke for itself in many ways.
Jesus is not an undue respecter of persons. He does not look to the “face” of man. Will he treat with respect the head of the Emperor on the coin? The superscription includes the letters DIVI that proclaim the Emperor as “divine”. The denarius is not just a neutral transfer or gift of money for the coffers. It is tribute. It honours the ruler.
Jesus says of the coin, “It is his; give it him; give to God what is God’s.” God’s tribute, not precisely defined, is not harmed or denied by the giving of Caesar’s tribute. The inner dynamic of God’s presence through his Spirit is working through the social system. With hindsight we see the undercurrent of God’s working through the Roman Empire which will in the end break out in the Emperor Constantine’s conversion.
We might think that paying the Temple poll tax would satisfy giving God his tribute. In Matthew 17:24 Jesus is called upon to pay the Temple half-shekel poll tax. The right amount for himself and Peter is found in the mouth of the fish. The payment is, in one sense, indirect, coming from the fish, but the tax is paid. Jesus pays, but also does it in a qualified way. It is not strictly due from the sons of the kingdom and Jesus is the Son of the Kingdom. The inner dynamic of God’s presence in Jesus and through his Spirit is working through the religious system. With hindsight we see that the New Testament is replacing the Old.
The promise of liberation that Isaiah held out so long ago to the Jews in Babylon still stirs in repressive regimes. Repressive regimes break up not only by exterior force, but also by interior dynamic movement, the hand of God. That seems to have been the case with both Russian communism and apartheid South Africa. The call for justice and peace for all runs through all peoples and is a major purpose of God working within us. We must turn in tribute to Him to whom we belong. This is the recognition of the Spirit’s inner stirring and striving us to our end.