29th Sunday - A - 2017 Isaiah 45 : 1, 4-5 Thess. 1 : 1-5 Matthew 22: 15-21.
"Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" Few of Jesus' words have been quoted as much as these. And none, perhaps, have been more distorted and manipulated.
Those unfamiliar with the biblical world frequently turn to this gospel reading argue for two distinct realms in our world. One, the church, belongs to God; the other, the state, belongs to us humans. Neither should interfere nor cross over into the other. The truth is - nothing could be further from biblical faith.
Jesus' confrontation with the Pharisees - who despised Roman occupation, and the Herodians - who worked for the Romans, is resolved by having recourse to basic Ist century Middle-East economics: who owns the country's money. In this case, if some of the coins circulating in Palestine are Roman denarii, then Roman emperor is their owner.
The problem arises when Jesus ends his words with the command, 'And repay to God what belongs to God'. It's here that some contend that Jesus is dividing the world into two - Caesar's and God's. But Jesus isn't thinking of God and Caesar as two powers that can each demand, in their own arena, their rights from their subjects. Like any faithful Jew, Jesus knows that to God,'belongs the earth and all it holds; the world and all who dwell in it'. A coin may carry the image of Tiberius, but human beings are in the image of God. We belong only to God. We cannot then sacrifice people to any power. Our duty is to defend them.
That is why Jesus doesn't dwell on the different stances facing Herodians, Sadducees and Pharisees. He just tells that that if they carry the 'tax money', in their pockets, then let them fulfill their obligations.
He, himself, is not at the service of the Roman Empire. His mission is to declare the presence of the Kingdom of God and what it signifies. So do not give to any 'Caesar' what only belongs to God - the poor, the marginalised, children, the voiceless. The Kingdom of God belongs to them. They are not to be abused.
But people's lives, dignity and happiness are being sacrificed. No power to-day has sacrificed more lives and caused more suffering, hunger and destruction that this 'dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal' - words of Pope Francis.
And that takes us our the economic situations in each of our countries and those around the world; many of which are in crisis. And they are more than financial crises - they are humanitarian. Obsessed as we are with greater and greater material well-being, we have ended up living life-styles that are unsustainable, even economically.
It is not enough to propose technical solutions. A conversion in our life-styles, a change of consciousness, is required. We have to go from competition to cooperation. We have to set limits on the voracity of the market. We have to have a new ethic of renunciation.
This crisis is not going to go away soon. Tough years await us. And we followers of Jesus can and must find inspiration and encouragement in the Gospel message.
From Jesus we have the invitation to be near to the most vulnerable victims. We cannot remain passive and indifferent, silencing the voice of conscience in religious practice. It takes a lot of biblical faith to stop dividing reality into areas in which God is welcome and in which God is excluded.