29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 18, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96:1, 3-5, 7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21
(1) Kingdom v. Kingdom
We’re very used to telling the Gospel story as one of God becoming man and dying for our sins to save us. And that’s true! That is one part of the story, one part of the whole. But we have almost completely forgotten that another central theme of the Gospels—of this Good News—is the element of the Kingdom of God breaking in and clashing with the kingdom of Caesar, the “kingdom of the world,” so to speak.
At the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Luke makes this clear. He says, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (Luke 2:1). From the beginning, Luke tells his story within this context of kingdom versus kingdom, Caesar versus Jesus.
Jesus’ first words: “The kingdom of God is at hand!” (c.f., Mark 1:14, Matthew 4:17). As Caesar is trying to build up and secure his kingdom, Jesus is beginning his.
A couple of weeks ago, Jesus and his disciples were at Caesarea Philipi (Caesarea Philipi…wanna guess who Caesarea refers to?) Again, the issue is an issue of kingdoms. And that day Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (c.f., Matthew 16:15-16). Not, “You are God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.” No. “You are the Christ,” God’s anointed, God’s messiah, the one God would anoint and send to supplant the rulers of this world. “You are…the Son of the living God,” as in, God’s anointed king (“Son of God” was the title of the king). And remember, this is all fine and just a Jewish issue up until you know that everyone was walking around with coins in their pockets that said “Son of God”…and the image on that coin wasn’t Jesus, it was Caesar Augustus. Put it all together: Peter is saying, “You are the Messiah that Israel has been waiting for, here to supplant all other rulers of the world. You are the Son of God, the true King, the one of whom the Psalms and prophets spoke. You are Christ and King.”
So look at the Gospel today with this in mind, and those coins become the issue. Jesus is asked about paying taxes to Caesar, but taxes have very little to do with it. It’s a conflict over kingdoms and rulers. When they hand Jesus the Roman coin, he asks whose image and inscription are on the coin. The image is that of Caesar Augustus, and the inscription is, again, “Son of God.” Jesus says, “Pay back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus is not agreeing with the Enlightenment thinkers that there should be a separation of Church and state. Jesus is convicting the Jews of idolatry and for selling out to the wrong kingdom. “Repay Caesar with his own image. You aren’t supposed to be carrying images in the first place! And how about you repay God with his own image: yourself, you who have been created in and sealed with the image of God.” That’s what’s going on in this scene. The Jews sold-out, bought-in—however you want to look at it—to the wrong kingdom. And the kingdom they sold-out to is going to fail them. It will not last.
(2) Cyrus, Jesus: Two Messiahs, One Knows It
“But Fr. Michael,” you’re about to say—I can hear you thinking it, don’t think I can’t—“But Fr. Michael, I see where you’re going. What’s wrong with having both? Why can’t we be good little Christians and good little citizens? Can’t God do great good even through the government?” And that’s sneaky of you, sneaking in the Catholic “both/and” on me! And I’ll admit, you got me there. You’re right. God can work through people even when they don’t realize it.
King Cyrus is the perfect example of this. He’s the guy in our first reading. And Cyrus is a pretty important figure in the history of Israel. He is the one that conquers the Babylonians and lets the Israelites go free. And it gets better! He commands them (doesn’t suggest it, commands them) to rebuild their temple. And—get this—he decides to help pay for the thing! What a guy.
And how does Isaiah describe him? How was he described in our first reading? Shocking, really. What does Isaiah say? “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus…I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not” (Isaiah 45:1, 4b). The LORD gives King Cyrus a title. And that title is “anointed.” Anointed! A pagan king, a polytheistic pagan king—the anointed! “Anointed” is our lame little English word for “meschiach,” as in, “Messiah.” In the New Testament, the Greek word they use is “christos,” as in, “Christ.” The LORD calls Cyrus his messiah, his christ! “Cyrus Christ,” you could call him.
“But Fr. Michael,” you’re about to say—I can hear you thinking it, don’t think I can’t—“But Fr. Michael, this just proves our point! God can use the government! And he even puts people on par with His messiah. What’s the deal?” And again, touché.
There’s just one question: Do you like when someone else uses your hard work for their own purposes? Or better, Do you like working really hard and then letting someone else take all the credit? You work hard on something at work, you put in long hours, and then someone else takes all the credit. They say, “Oh yeah, Bill helped, but I was behind the whole thing.” And you try to chime in and say, “Actually it was my idea.” But it’s too late: stupid Steve already took all the credit. You like that? No. Doubt it.
That’s the difference, though (among others, I’m aware). But that’s the difference between God’s two messiah’s: Cyrus and Jesus. With Cyrus, he’s just out trying to conquer the world (and he was crushing it, by the way). But what happened? Well, God took all the credit, for starters. Cyrus didn’t even know that he was the messiah, he didn’t even know that God had chosen him. The LORD just let Cyrus do his thing, let him be free as a bird and conquer the world. But then—Isaiah points out—Cyrus only did that because it worked to accomplish God’s plan.
With Jesus, with this Messiah, things are different. Yes, God anoints him, too. The difference? Jesus knows it, and, he voluntarily goes along with it. Jesus willingly and knowingly participates. And that free participation is the key. When he lets God be God, when he lives his life in humble obedience, incredible things are accomplished through him, with him, and in him. Remember, Jesus is going toe-to-toe with the kingdoms of the world, he is up against the most impressive and powerful empire in history. He ends up crucified on a cross—dead. When Rome wanted to gloat about victory, when they wanted to really stick it to people, they put them on a cross. “This guy running around with people calling him the ‘Son of God’ and the ‘Christ’? Yeah, he lost.”
But that’s the point: the cross is our sign of victory. On the cross, Christ won the decisive battle. His mission as God’s anointed led him to the seeming defeat of the cross, but it was in his willing and knowing participation in that plan that led to victory, to redemption, to our salvation. Again, as with Cyrus, God’s anointed is the one through whom God’s plan is accomplished, even when everyone else thinks that something else is going on.
This clash of kingdoms continues. Even now, there is this conflict, this clashing of kingdoms. But that conflict happens, first and foremost, within you. The Kingdom of God doesn’t show up with new signs and structures, you’re not going to be able to say, “Well here it is!” (c.f., Luke 17:20-21). The Kingdom of God comes when it grows within you. We don’t have to go out there and build it, we don’t have to impose it on others. It happens. When we freely and knowingly allow it, it happens to us.
(3) Mary’s FIAT
The example we have of this is our Blessed Mother, Mary. Here at St. Mary parish, we should be very clued in on this. Mary is our model for this. We all know that famous scene where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she is going to be the mother of the Son of God. And what does she say? “Fiat. Let it be done to me.” Mary says, “Fiat.” That’s Latin for, “Let it be done to me.” Not, “Yes, I’ll do it.” Not, “Yes, that works fine for me. I’ll get that done.” No. “Fiat. Let it be done to me.” Mary says, “Yes, let it happen to me.”
Mary freely and knowingly agrees, she goes along with it. She isn’t forced, God doesn’t let her get pregnant and then take all the credit, no. He seeks her cooperation, He wants her to freely participate in bringing about this new kingdom! And what does He ask? For her to go out and conquer the world? To take down the government and install a new king and kingdom? No. God says, “I will do all of the work, but I need you to let it happen.” And so that’s what Mary does. She says, “Fiat. Let it happen just as you say. Let it happen to me. Let it happen within me and through me.” And lo and behold, the kingdom begins to grow within her—physically. Jesus, the kingdom in person (autobasilea) begins to grow. That simple “Fiat” of Mary was decisive in accomplishing the divine mystery.
Because what happens? On one side of the world, Caesar Augustus is wielding his political and imperial power, and on the other side of his kingdom, in a nowhere town of Nazareth, little does he know, that a fifteen year-old girl has just said yes to an unplanned pregnancy that will mean the end of his reign, the end of everyone else’s reign, and the enthronement of a new King, a new Lord, a new Son of God.
(4) FIAT: Our Response
This is the same question asked of us. God is looking and asking for our “Fiat.” He doesn’t expect us to do all of the work, to change everyone’s mind, to establish his Kingdom on earth as in heaven by our own strength. He asks us to stop selling out to the wrong kingdom. He asks, “Will you let my kingdom be established within you? Will you let it happen?” God wants to do all the work and let you take all the credit and reap all the rewards. But He needs a simple “Fiat.”
This is our theme for Stewardship this year: FIAT, “Let it be done to me.” As God continues to establish His Kingdom, as we renew our commitment to Evangelizing, to being His Disciples, to being good Stewards—it all begins with FIAT: letting it happen. The Kingdom of God arrives in and through you. Render to God what belongs to God, turn yourself over to Him, and He will accomplish the rest.