“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he has taken by his right hand to subdue the nations before him. It is for the sake of my servant Jacob, Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by name, conferring a title though you do not know my name.”
The exalted language with which the prophet Isaiah described Cyrus, the Persian king who would bring to an end Israel’s Babylonian captivity, represented a revolutionary step in Israel’s thinking about God’s relationship with the nations. At the risk of oversimplification, it would be true to say that until this time Israel had understood God’s saving intervention as restricted to the tribes of Israel. The description of Cyrus, a foreigner and unbeliever, as the Lord’s chosen instrument challenged Israel to broaden her understanding of God’s presence in the world. The goodness of God was not to be confined to the narrow limits of Israel’s religious identity.
Here was the first clear indication that the grace of God was to be found in all men and women of good will. The graciousness of Cyrus had clearly demonstrated this.
Cyrus did indeed restore Israel’s exiled tribes to their homeland. In an age not noted for its tolerance, he allowed Jerusalem’s restored inhabitants to rebuild their temple and honour their religious customs. Our own society, in its attitude to a diversity of faiths and cultures, has much to learn from Cyrus, the Lord’s anointed.
In the Gospel, Jesus likewise challenged narrow-minded stereotypes. The context, once again, was the mounting conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees were determined to trap Jesus.
Their question – “is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” – was rooted in the prejudice that is blind to any cause but its own. To those represented by the Pharisees the equation was simple: Rome was the agent of the Devil, while Israel held the monopoly of all goodness. Therefore, presumably, no tax could be legitimately paid to Caesar.
Jesus refused to be drawn into the malice that lay behind the questioning of the Pharisees. His answer skilfully sidestepped their pettiness: “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to
God what belongs to God.”
Clearly the response of Jesus must be understood against the political realities of his day. This is not to say that the broader significance of his words are without application for today. The secular and the religious, the realms of God and Caesar, do not necessarily exclude each other. Pope Benedict’s memorable address at Westminster Hall made this abundantly clear. It is when government and faith are open to each other, when they cooperate, that the well-being of society is best secured. We do not choose between God and Caesar. We honour the realm that is proper to each.
The contribution demanded of us as Christians is not limited to a narrowly religious sphere. We build his kingdom as we enter positively into the work and structures of our civil society. It is in this sense that we are called to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Pope Benedict’s visit to our country was a humble and convincing expression of this truth.