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First Reading = Isaiah 45: 1, 4-6       
Responsorial Psalm = 96: 1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
2nd Reading = 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-5
Gospel = Matthew 22: 15-21 



Opening Remarks – Story 
     The principal of a Christian elementary school became concerned about her student’s behavior at lunchtime. She observed that instead of taking one apple each, some students were taking two or more and the apples ran out before every student had an opportunity to get one. And, even after she lectured the children about the apple problem in assembly, asking the children to be more considerate of others, the problem persisted. So, one day she decided to apply some divine assistance. She put a handwritten note behind the apple basket for all to see. The note simply read, “Take only one apple, God is watching.” To her amazement it was an immediate success as the students complied and there were enough apples for all. 
But later that day a cafeteria worker reported they ran far short of Oreo cookies and many students had to do without. Upon investigating that problem, they noticed a not so neatly printed note, apparently written by a student, that had been placed in front of the Oreo cookie tray. It read, “Take as many cookies as you want, God is watching the apples!”    
   Have you ever noticed how we have become accustomed to believing that God is only where we put him? If God is watching the apples, he cannot possibly be watching the cookies also. We construct God’s boundaries, limitations, time slots, power, where God is allowed to enter only into certain areas of our lives and only when we want him there. We can even get disturbed when God violates our constraints by calling us to a closer relationship with him.
   Cardinal Francis George wrote the following. “The inevitable result of those who regard themselves as ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ is a crisis of belief. Throughout history, when Catholics and other believers in revealed religion are given to choose between being taught by God or instructed by politicians, professors, news media, and entertainers, many have opted to go along with the secular powers. It takes no moral courage to conform to government and social pressure. It takes a deep faith to swim against the tide.” 



God’s Awesome Plan:
     In today’s first reading, God establishes three foundational principles for intervention into the affairs of the Israelite nation. First, his actions are taken to secure the well-being of his people who are under siege of a foreign enemy. Second, he is not averse to using any means, even a pagan king that has no knowledge of him as an instrument to carry out his will. And third, God establishes that his own sovereignty and omnipotence has no equal. 
    Here is the background:  In the 6th century before Christ, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and deported the Jewish people to a land located on the Eastern part of present-day Iraq. This began a seventy-year period of exile until King Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple. Today’s Isaiah reading is a message designed to raise the spirits of the exiles by announcing the sending of a liberator, Cyrus of Persia, whom God will use to implement his plan for the salvation of Israel. God declares the pagan King Cyrus, as the Lord’s anointed. “I have called you by name, giving you a title, though you knew me not” (Isaiah 45: 4b). St. Thomas Aquinas comments, “Having raised the hopes of the people in the divine promises (Isaiah Chapters 40-45), he lists and details the promises in order to console them; first God promises freedom from all ills (Isaiah Chapters 45-55) and then the restoration of all goods” (Isaiah Chapters 56-66). 
    So, according to St. Thomas, God cares so deeply for his people in every age that he contradicts their own long held beliefs of God’s exclusivity for Israel by revealing his universal plan of salvation in the call of King Cyrus. Even when they (we) are in bondage or broken, God always has an eye on us and speaks words of hope with divine promise for those who have ears to hear. God offers consolation, freedom from oppression, and restoration of his loving mercy even when we may think he has withdrawn.     
    God, the Lord of past, present and future, will shape people and events, even pagan and secular ones, for the sake of his elect. Analysis is unnecessary. Praise, worship, thanksgiving, obedience and passionate service provide evidence that we are a grateful people in need of the Lord’s intervention in our lives. At times we are so blinded by the negative news of the hour that we lose vision of divine activity. How would you describe the ways this unchanging God shaping is today’s political, social and religious landscape, and what is your role in the process? 



Change Your Tune: 
    Today’s Psalm speaks of God’s universality. Too often we limit God’s power and presence by our limited views of what God can or cannot do. Instead of analyzing God and putting him in our very neat and understandable boxes, the Psalm encourages all people and created things (trees rejoicing) to sing, praise, bless and proclaim the glories of the Lord and to make known God’s marvelous deeds. In proportion to what we say and do let us spend double or triple of our time in giving God what belongs to him rather than grumbling and complaining about things that are not going according to our will. This is what is meant by the opening line of the Psalm, “Sing to the Lord a new song,” it is about changing our tune.              
    Paul reminds the church at Thessalonica who they are and to whom they belong. His opening greeting affirms their oneness with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. How simple yet profoundly foundational these few words are for all Christians who may forget that God in the Lord Jesus Christ is the source and summit of all we are and do. That nothing else about us is more important. From that foundation, Paul goes on to assure them of his constant prayers and their three-fold ministry: work of faith, labor of love and endurance in hope. A work of faith is a realization that every task includes an element whereby our faith in God can be exhibited. Does faith in the Lord motivate your thoughts, words and actions or do you have some other agenda? We have all witnessed someone volunteering in soup kitchens, at homeless shelters, St. Vincent de Paul, or as a caregiver to an infirmed person where monetary consideration is not a factor because it is a labor of love. This is the attitude and action of one who is so in love with Christ that they want to imitate his works of mercy. Where does our hope reside? Is it in our intellect, physical strength, the quest for personal gain or is it in the saving power and promises of our Lord Jesus Christ? The other motivations will eventually wear thin but since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever placing our hope in him will allow us to endure in loving service to the end of our days. Yes, these three endure: faith, hope and love because by exercising these virtues we give to God what is his due.        


Trapping Jesus:
    Matthew 21: 23 – 22: 46 records five controversies between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. In four of these, their attempts to discredit him with questions of religion and the Law have failed. They questioned Jesus’ authority to speak as if he was God. They tried to trap him by mocking his teachings on the resurrection of the dead, and the greatest commandment. 
    Today’s Gospel reveals an unholy alliance between the Pharisees and Herodians and their concoction of a devious scheme to destroy Jesus. 
    Who were these conspirators’ and what did they believe? The Pharisees were an orthodox religious group, strongly opposed to paying taxes to the Roman government. They believed God was the only king, and that paying tax to an earthly king was an insult to God. The Herodians were the party of Herod, the Roman government’s puppet king placed in command of Jerusalem. They favored high taxation. But desperation brings strange bedfellows. Together, they developed a question involving religion and politics, so cleverly crafted (so they thought) that it would incriminate Jesus regardless of his answer. 
    “Tell us (teacher), is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not”? If Jesus answered “Yes” he would suffer disfavor among the people who so hated the tax, they may have stoned him to death. If he said, “No” the Herodians would have immediately reported him to the Roman government, charging him with treason. Instead, Jesus responded with a question, challenging them to pause their distorted thinking and look at the motive of their own hearts. “Whose image and description is on the Roman coin?” When they admitted it was Caesar’s he said, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” With these words, Jesus shifts the focus from devious earthly matters to glorious heavenly considerations. Paying taxes is necessary, but of greater importance is assuring our priority is to give God his due. Jesus is the peacemaker in the midst of a potentially contentious eruption of human divisiveness. His question/answer assures a win-win for all parties involved.       


Render Unto Caesar: 

    Few topics in recent history have ignited as much public debate as the balance between religion and politics. Does religious thought have any place in political discourse? Do religious believers have the right to turn their values into political action? What does it truly mean to have a separation of church and state?  Consider the following quotes. 
    “People who take God seriously will not remain silent about their faith. They will often disagree about doctrine or policy, but they won’t be quiet. They can’t be. They’ll act on what they believe, sometimes at the cost of their reputations and careers. Obviously, the common good demands a respect for other people with different beliefs and a willingness to compromise whenever possible. But for Catholics, the common good can never mean muting themselves in public debate on foundational issues of human dignity. Christian faith is always personal but never private. This is why any notion of tolerance that tries to reduce faith to private idiosyncrasy, or a set of opinions that we can indulge at home but need to be quiet about in public, will always fail.”— Render Unto Caesar, Doubleday Religion, Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia 
    Archbishop Chaput continues: “While American society has ample room for believers and nonbelievers alike, our public life must be considered within the context of its Christian roots. American democracy does not ask its citizens to put aside their deeply held moral and religious beliefs for the sake of public policy. In fact, it requires exactly the opposite. As the nation’s founders knew very well, people are fallible. The majority of voters, as history has shown again and again, can be uninformed, misinformed, biased, or simply wrong. Thus, to survive, American democracy depends on an engaged citizenry —people of character, including religious believers, fighting for their beliefs in the public square—respectfully but vigorously, and without apology. Anything less is bad citizenship and a form of theft from the nation’s health. Good manners are not an excuse for political cowardice.” 


Closing Comments: 

    “Pastors should be preparing parish members for works of ministry, not pampering them. 
Ministry is a team activity not the sole obligation of the pastor.  If people are only being served, they are consumers.  If they are serving, they are ministers.  Our churches will be unhealthy consumer-driven assemblies if lay people are not encouraged to get involved and help out.  Just like a family, the only people who don’t help are the babies.  Lay ecclesial ministry is not a Plan B for the dearth of vocations, but the mature fruit of the baptized.” – Fr. Michael White, Rebuilt – Ave Maria Press Pg. 193.


   As we continue with this Liturgy, we pray for the grace to always “Repay to God what belongs to God!”

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