King Cyrus or Cyrus the Great was an important person in Jewish history, though he was not Jewish. He was a Persian conqueror and emperor. It was under his reign that the Jews returned to Palestine after seventy years of captivity in Babylon, (Jer 29:10). Prophet Isaiah had prophesied about him by name about one-hundred and fifty years before his birth. The Lord referred to Cyrus as his “anointed” and stated that: “It is for the sake of my servant Jacob, of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, conferring a title though you do not know me,” (Is 45:1,4-6). In this prophesy of Isaiah, we realise that God can use anyone to achieve his purpose, just as Christ used St Patrick, a former slave in Ireland, to proclaim his Gospel to the Irish people.
The first Reading prophesied the coming of Persia as a superpower. This came to fruition by the conquest of Babylon by King Cyrus. The prophesy of Isaiah regarding Cyrus as an instrument in God’s hand to achieve his purpose was fulfilled when in his first year of reign as the emperor of Persia, he issued the following decree:
“Thus, speaks Cyrus King of Persia: The Lord the God of heaven, who has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, has ordered me to build him a house in Jerusalem, in Judah. Now, all of you who belong to his people, go there and may the Lord your God be with you”, (2Chr 36:22-23). Cyrus was gracious to the Jews in building this temple by offsetting the building cost from his treasury, (Ezra 1:4–11; 6:4–5).
Just as the Jewish people were under the imperial power of Babylon before King Cyrus freed them, during Jesus’ time, the people of Israel were under another occupation by the reigning superpower – Rome. The reigning emperor then was Tiberius Caesar.
Many Jews were against the occupation of their land by a foreign power and were also opposed to the coins minted by the Roman government because it was engraved with the head of Emperor Tiberius Caesar. The Jews believed that the commandments of God forbade the making of images and the worshipping of other gods. The reverse side of the coin had an inscription “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, High Priest”.
There were Jews who were willing to take up arms to fight the occupation; these were known as the zealots. None-the-less, there were those who supported the occupation and were willing to work with the occupying power, some of them were known as the Herodians. In the Gospel of today the Pharisees who were opposed to the occupation of Palestine by a pagan power connived with the Herodians to entrap Jesus. Do you in what you say or do try to entrap others as the Pharisees and the Herodians did to Jesus?
Palestine under the Roman occupation was a heavily taxed nation. There were three forms of taxes that were imposed on the people by the Roman administration; a ground tax, (1/10 of the produce of the land), an income tax (1/10 of the person’s income) and a poll tax, (an equivalent of a daily wage). These taxes were collected by Publicans like Matthew and Zacchaeus before their conversion. The tax collectors were often hated for two principal reasons. Firstly, they were agents of the occupying power, and secondly, they often extorted from the people more than the required levies, and embezzled the extra funds they obtained illegally.
The Pharisees and the Herodian parties asked Jesus if it was “permissible to pay taxes to Caesar?” This question put Jesus in a dilemma. If he answered in the affirmative, he would be accused of supporting the Roman occupation, and if he answered in the negative, he would be accused of insurrection against the Roman government. Jesus’ answer that we should, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”, is a gentle affirmation that we have physical and spiritual needs and both are to be catered for. While we are undertaking our civic responsibilities, we must not shrug off our relationship with God.
Though Australia is a secular society in which everyone is free to practice the faith of one’s choice, however, freedom of religion should never be confused with freedom from religion in which our society gets rid of anything religious; a society in which one may be forbidden to display Christmas decorations in the public arena or to say Merry Christmas to others.
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp