FR EMMANUEL INEDU OCHIGBO
HMMM! I SMELL IDOLATRY!
Cyrus II the Great was the founder of the Persian Empire. In today’s first reading, the children of Israel were on exile in Babylon. It had taken some years, and they were already losing hope of returning to their homeland. In the midst of the despair came a prophet who could read the signs of the times and he announced to the children of Israel that freedom was on the way. But this was a difficult prophecy to believe because Babylon seemed to be the super power that was unconquerable; it seemed like Babylon could do and undo. The other reason why it was difficult to believe this prophecy had to do with the fact that the instrument to be used to bring about their freedom was a pagan King, Cyrus. Today’s first reading is the only place in the Old Testament where a foreigner is called the Lord’s “anointed.” This was a title originally reserved for Priests, Prophets and Kings of Israel.
Just like the prophet prophesied, the Persian king, Cyrus conquered Babylon, and In 538 BC, Cyrus permitted the Jews residing in Babylon to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its temple. He even assisted them in the rebuilding of the temple. He also freed other nations that were in captivity in Babylon, and allowed them to freely practice their own religions. The prophet presented Cyrus as an instrument in the hands of God that brought about the freedom of God’s people.
How does this come down to us today? It is true as scripture says, that “Our help comes from the Lord” (cf. Psalm 121:1), but God is at liberty to use any channel to get this help across to us. The Jews would not have thought that any good could come from pagans, but God used a pagan to secure the freedom of Israel from Babylon. Today, many of us still live in different forms of Babylon in our families, in our places of work, in our schools, in our places of worship, in our government at all levels and in our different relationships. Sometimes, we think our freedom must come from certain people; but our freedom can only come from God, and only God knows who He wants to use as the instrument for our liberation.
In the Gospel passage, the Pharisees and the Herodians brought to Jesus, a question that required a simple “yes” or “no” answer. They asked, “Is it right to pay census tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus knew that there was more to that question, he knew there were a lot of hidden charges, so he did not sign the contract, he had to redirect the conversation. He asked them to bring a coin and identify whose image was on it. When they said, “Caesar’s” Jesus then responded, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God, what belongs to God.” This response is one of the most misunderstood and misused sayings of Jesus in the Bible. Some have used it to promote different forms of dualism in this world. They promote the idea that every conversation and everything must be divided into two contrasting and opposing sides or views. For such people, you are either for God or for Caesar; do not bring politics into religion, and do not bring religion into politics. For such people, when you belong to one political party, you must hate everything about the other. For such people, you are either for us, or you are for them, and when you are for them, it means you are everything against us. Is that what Jesus is talking about here?
How did Jesus determine the ownership of the coin? It was by identifying the image and inscription on the coin. How do we identify what belongs to God? We do that by finding the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created human beings in His image and likeness.” That tells us that God’s image is in human beings. As such, all human beings belong to God, and if Caesar is a human being, then Caesar belongs God, and by extension, whatever belongs to Caesar belongs to God. It is not a question of God or Caesar, for Caesar is not a threat to God.
The problem of dualism becomes more prominent during the time of elections. We can easily become distracted and forget that all power belongs to God. Some of those with influence either knowingly or unknowingly begin to use their influences to divide people into “us” and “them,” making us to hate one another based on who we vote for. It troubles me when I see good friends turn into enemies, lovely family members boiling with hatred for one another because of who someone is voting for. We should be able to have different views about issues, we should be able to have responsible conversations without hating and demonizing one another.
Some Catholics have asked me, “Father, who would you like to win in the coming elections?” I always respond that I have made up my mind on the candidates to vote for, but my prayer is that the candidates after God’s heart may win. Only God knows the end from the beginning. Only God knows the true heart of a person. Only God knows the instruments He wants to use to free his children from Babylon. The “saint” I vote for today may become the Judas Iscariot that will betray me tomorrow, while the “pagan king” that I condemn today, may be the “King Cyrus” that God will use to save me from Babylon tomorrow. That is why I cannot impose my choice of candidate on you. And I cannot condemn you for your choice of candidate. The last time I checked, Peter was given the key to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19), but I am not aware of any human being who was given the key to hell fire, so I do not think anyone has what it takes to threaten you with hell based on an election. I begin to sense some form of idolatry when my desire for a particular candidate to win supersedes my prayer for the will of God to be done.
The desire of Jesus, in his high priestly prayer, is that we may all be one (John 17:21). My dearly beloved in Christ, let love reign, and let the will of God be done in all that concerns us, through Christ our Lord. Amen.