Jesus sidesteps a trap and offers grace and peace to everyone who follows him.
Isaiah amazingly imagines a dialogue between the Lord God and Cyrus. Daringly Isaiah imagines God saying: ‘I have called you by your name, conferring a title though you do not know me.’ Where did Isaiah get this insight into God, which he rightly intuits extends beyond the chosen people to embrace foreign kings? We can imagine he learnt this from his experience of a deep contemplative spirit which cannot abide setting boundaries to the Divine care and plan for humanity. Yet Isaiah must balance this insight with the culture of his day, which spoke of Israel as ‘my chosen one’. Again, we can add – Israel chose to ensure that the dialogue began in them may expand in the fullness of time to include all humanity – which the choosing of Israel had not in fact ever excluded. The constant pull on humanity is to recognise that it makes little sense unless it leads to acknowledge the inclusivity and universality of God’s plans for his creation and humankind.
Then Paul assumes the miraculous culmination of Isaiah’s mystical insight – in his greetings to the Church in Thessalonica. The dialogue, guessed at by Isaiah, has broken all boundaries and has revealed that God is ‘Father’, that Jesus Christ is Lord and his claim that the Church in Thessalonica is “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. The word ‘in’ reflects the cataclysmic change which has overtaken the whole of humanity through the life of Jesus. Humanity has been situated ‘IN’ God! This sense of being IN God had not been claimed as clearly ever before. He then makes the astounding claim that he knows that God loves them! We have come so used to the notion that ‘God loves us’ that Paul’s words do not at all strike us as miraculous or in any way amazing. But, think about it, he assumes without any sign of doubt that he can say that a group of people are ‘in God the Father’; that he can speak of grace and peace from God; that he can mention them in his prayers and thank God for all of them; that God loves them and thus they have been ‘chosen’ (like any other group whose only qualification is not tribe or nation or city or colour or race – but only because they are part of humanity!) by no other means than those which Paul has learnt through his relationship with God. He has heard and passed this on, indeed as ‘Good News’, which came not just as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit of God and as utter conviction.
Matthew sets the pivotal notion of the universality of God’s claim on us, into a dialogue with the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians, who are out to trap him. This passage cannot be taken as support for a simplistic and misleading division into secular and sacred or a false dichotomy of the political and the religious. The tribute and Caesar are both to be given meaning by God. ‘Give back what belongs to God’ This includes Caesar, money, all human relationships, economics, and politics – all pale into insignificance, but also catch their validity from being taken up into the dialogue with God. It is against that backdrop that these things have any meaning and can be assessed as truly human or destructive of the human. Jesus sidesteps the trap but, in so doing, lifts the dialogue onto a significantly more powerful level.