This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 22:15–21:

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Today’s Gospel reading is, by itself, one of the most enjoyable of Christ’s rebukes to the temple authorities. By this point in Matthew’s Gospel, it has become abundantly clear that these authorities had decided Jesus was a threat to their own position, rather than the One who would save the world. This would provoke the “Woes” Matthew records in the very next chapter, in which Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees at the temple as “blind guides,” “hypocrites,” “blind fools,” and so on, and ending with a lament over Jerusalem’s betrayal of the prophets.

This particular trap looks poorly conceived in retrospect, but in context, it had a malicious cleverness to it. The Romans had imposed taxes on Jerusalem (as most occupiers do), and anger over them contributed to unrest (as they usually do, too). The Pharisees clearly hoped to put Jesus in a position where the Romans would see Him as part of the unrest as a tax protester or a denier of Roman authority. Either that, or they hoped to force Jesus into a tacit endorsement of Roman rule that could discredit Him as a teacher. Either way, it would derail the threat Jesus posed to their authority without the scribes and Pharisees having to do anything at all. They would be able to “keep their skirts clean,” so to speak.

Jesus sees right through this, of course. Instead, He makes the distinction between the temporal and the spiritual, giving us one of the most memorable of all lessons in the Gospels: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto Me what is Mine, in the more archaic and poetic version.

But what is Caesar’s, and what is the Lord’s? Today’s first reading from Isaiah puts this episode into a different light, and calls us to see past the distinction drawn by Jesus in this rebuke. The prophet proclaims that King Cyrus of Persia is the Lord’s instrument, “his anointed,” even though Cyrus “knew me not”:

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred: For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is no other.

Isaiah could not be referring directly to Cyrus the Great, at least not from contemporary experience. Cyrus the Great became one of the most influential dynasts in history, most remembered (in Biblical terms) for having released the Judeans from their Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BC, an event described in Second Chronicles 36:22-23. However, Isaiah prophesied long before the fall of Jerusalem, starting in the eighth century BC. This appears to be either a reference to Cyrus I of Anshan and Persia, Cyrus the Great’s grandfather, or a true prophecy of the future.

Either way, this becomes an even more compelling vision of the Lord’s use of us as instruments of His will — whether we know Him or not. As Isaiah says just before this passage, the Lord “says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;  saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’ ” The Lord anointed Cyrus I to have His people liberated two generations later through the actions of his grandson. Cyrus — both Cyruses — are God’s instrument.

And this brings us back to Jesus’ rebuke with the coin of Caesar. It is not quite so easy to determine what serves the Lord and what does not. Did Caesar serve the Lord, unwittingly? Did Pontius Pilate? Do we all serve the Lord, whether we know Him or not? Indeed, but it is in how we serve the Lord that determines our fate. We are given free will, by which we can cooperate with His own will or choose not to do so at all. Clearly, Pilate chose another path, as did the whole line of the Caesars of Rome until Constantine.

And yet, in both our cooperation and our refusals, the Lord’s will gets accomplished. The idol-worshipping of the kings of Israel destroyed the mission of Israel as a nation of prophets for the world, but it allowed for episodes of renewal and rebirth. The sins of Judea allowed for the Greek occupation, but that produced the Maccabean re-assertion of Judaic principles and the Law. Roman occupation crushed Judaic independence, but it allowed the moment in time for the Messiah to proclaim salvation, and establish His church.

It is this duality that challenges us in living lives of faithfulness. Our spiritual lives are caught up in the temporal world; all eventually serves the Lord’s will, but sin ensnares us and leads us astray. Discernment isn’t as easy as looking at the head of a coin. Life is two sides of one coin, in which we strive to remain faithful to the Lord while dealing with the consequences of the fallen world warped by man’s will rather than His. The Lord calls us to cooperate for our sakes, to form ourselves for salvation; He does not call us for His sake.

So how are we to accomplish that? We need to keep our minds and hearts fixed on the Lord and His Word, rather than the signposts of sin. This is why Jesus dismissed the politics and commerce of His time as a snare rather than a part of His mission. We are called to participate in the world, but to put it in its proper perspective. If we recall Jesus’ commandment that our first mission is to love the Lord with all our hearts and will, everything else falls into place — like a coin dropping in a machine, a tool rather than an end in itself.

The front page image is a detail from “Moeda de César” [Caesar’s Coin] by Domingos Sequeira, 1790. Currently in a private collection. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.