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A Scripture Reflection for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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October 22, 2017

By Rev. Daniel P. Horan, OFM | October 22, 2017

A Scripture Reflection for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Is 45:1, 4-6, Ps 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10, 1 Thes 1:1-5B, Mt 22:15-21

 

The relationship between real power and false idols is a longstanding challenge to faith in the God of Israel, which is to say for Christians, the God of Jesus Christ. We see this play out in ancient times as well as in our own.

In our First Reading, we are reminded of the way in which some Israelites acquiesced to the reality of a foreign leader and began to interpret their captivity as something ordained by God. The Persian King Cyrus is portrayed as one who, though he and his community would not recognize or acknowledge it, nevertheless was empowered by the God of Israel to take control.

 In today's Gospel, we see a similar dynamic at play, this time with the Romans instead of the Persians. There were some Jews who were content to accept the Roman control of Jerusalem, offering something of a post factum justification for this foreign authority's control and oversight. Others were notably discontented and, awaiting the coming messiah who would overthrow the foreign powers, refused to cooperate in any shape or form with the Roman occupation. What we see in the confrontation about coins in the Gospel is really a discussion about Jesus's view of how one should think about cooperation with foreign powers in general and the Romans in particular.

 What makes the questioning Pharisees hypocrites in this exchange is that they were asking Jesus about cooperation or acquiescing with Roman authorities through the paying the state tax, while they themselves benefited from utilizing the currency of and participating in the economy of the oppressor. These particular Jewish leaders took a public stand against the Roman occupation and refused to pay the taxes. This is the set up to entrap Jesus and he knew their public view on the matter. So when he shifts the focus to coinage, he catches his inquirers off guard in asking for a coin that they readily produce. This was not one of the coins King Herod had minted, which followed the Jewish custom avoiding idolatry by not casting images of persons. Instead, these leaders out to trap Jesus in an intra-religious political trap undermine their own position by readily having the currency of the oppressor with images of the emperor readily on hand.

 Jesus asks for a coin because, we might surmise from his actions and his commitment to voluntary poverty, he himself opted out of the economy of the Roman system entirely. He didn't have the arguably idolatrous coin, but the Pharisees did. Jesus's response to their question has little to do with whether or not one pays the tax to the occupying powers and everything to do with how one lives out their public commitment to their faith.

 In our own time there are many people in the United States who make large overtures about their dedication to their faith tradition and their right to live as authentic Christians, publicly decrying any hint of perceived transgression against their right to exercise their religion. While this attitude is not in itself a bad one, what becomes problematic is when the public statements reflect one intention and the actions and views reflect something else entirely. Like Jesus's questioners in today's Gospel, many of these self-identified righteous believers today are quick to demand that they be permitted to be exempt from the system they view as imposing. They insist on the right to erect religious statues in public places, to offer denominationally exclusive prayers in public schools or government meetings, and to decide how to treat their employees or dependents based on individual religious positions.

 And yet, many of these same people are simultaneously trading in the idolatrous currency of our time. Some of the loudest defenders of "religious liberty" in America are quick to defend the sanctity of a national anthem or flag over the struggle for justice, particularly when the victims represented in the free speech protest are the most historically disenfranchised and vulnerable. Some of the most vocal critics of perceived infringement of the government on their free exercise of Christian faith are quick to defend government action that discriminates against Muslims.

 What is idolatrous about this is the blatant hypocrisy repeated in an undying commitment to the idol of nationalism, an unabashed commitment to what Mark Noll keenly termed "America's God," masquerading as the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, drawing on Noll's striking idol, we "cannot avoid the reality that American Christianity has been less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to distinguish America's god from the God we worship as Christians."

 If we find ourselves more upset about what we perceive as offensive protest during a civic ceremony than we are about the victims represented in the protest; if we are more angry about what we perceive as government interference in our ability to require others to accommodate our religious preferences than we are about the silencing of and harm done to religious minorities, then we may just be an unwitting hypocrites who in our own time proclaim a commitment to Christianity, but collude with oppressive forces we have convinced ourselves were put into authority by God.

 The God of Jesus Christ hears the cry of the poor (Ps 34) and the oppressed (e.g., Exodus 3:14-17), and proclaims a message of justice and peace. Perhaps it's time we reevaluate which currency is in our pockets and which God we profess to believe in.

 

 *The texts referenced in this reflection were: Mark Noll, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Stanley Hauerwas, "America's God,"  War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011)

The above image is from the Public Domain.

 

Rev. Daniel P. Horan, OFM
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology

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