The 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire” recalls the story of two runners who are competing for England in the Paris Olympic games of 1924.
One of the characters is Eric Liddel, the son of a missionary to China. He is a man of integrity and faith. He views his running ability as a gift from God and he returns this gift by running to the best of his ability. At one point, he says “when I run I feel His glory.”
In the early days of his training, he is coming from Church on a Sunday and encounters a youth playing with a soccer ball. He says to him “Do you know what day it is?” The youth responds, “Sunday.”
He, in turn says, “this is the Lord’s day and He says it should be a day for rest.” The remark might seem light at first but as the movie progresses the issue will come to the fore in dramatic fashion.
Following the selection of the Olympic squad, Eric joins his team mates as they prepare to board a ship bound for France and the Olympic Games. Climbing the platform one of the reporters calls out, “How do you feel about the qualifying heats on Sunday?”
Eric stops looking puzzled – “What did you say?”
“On Sunday, the qualifying heats – how do you feel about them?”
Being late he is pushed forward onto the ship. Eric is now in a dilemma. He confirms that indeed the race is on a Sunday. He confides his dilemma with the coach who says he will try to get the heat moved. After arriving, he is unable to do this.
At a welcoming dinner party Eric is escorted into a private room to meet with the head of the Olympic Committee, the Prince of Wales and two other leading members of the Athletic associations. They try to “persuade” him to run. He refuses stating that this is God’s law they are asking him to break, a law not subject to human authority. Fortunately, one of his team mates, aware of his predicament, breaks into the meeting and offers to switch events with him.
The director of the movie poignantly captures the two contrasting views with images of the race he would have run is being conducted, the scene then moves to a Church where Eric is reading in the lectern from the Book of Isaiah where it says:
Do you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not foretold you from the beginning? Have you not understood? Since the earth was founded,
He sits enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
He stretches out the heavens like a veil, spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He brings princes to nought and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted or sown, scarcely is their stem rooted in the earth,
When he breathes upon them and they wither, and the storm wind carries them away like straw.
To whom can you liken me as an equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these:
He leads out their army and numbers them, calling them all by name.
By his great might and the strength of his power not one of them is missing!
Why, O Jacob, do you say, and declare, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know or have you not heard?
The LORD is the eternal God, creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint nor grow weary, and his knowledge is beyond scrutiny.
He gives strength to the fainting; for the weak he makes vigor abound.
Though young men faint and grow weary, and youths stagger and fall,
They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings;
They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint. (Isaiah 40:21-31)
The contrasting world views that come to the fore, in many ways, finds resonance with the readings for today’s liturgy. In the gospel, the Pharisees who are plotting against Jesus and the Herodians send emissaries to Jesus to trap him by asking a question. They say:
Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
Saint Matthew in recalling the incident masterfully sets the scene. Here the duplicity of the questioners is set by stating a fact, even though they don’t believe it.
Jesus is a “truthful man” not concerned with “opinions” but “truth.” He is not influenced by someone’s status or position of power. Then they ask the question. The trap lies in the two possible answers. If Jesus says “no” then they can incite the Roman overlords to arrest Him. If Jesus says “yes,” they can accuse him of complicity with the foreign rulers. So Jesus gives the memorable response. He asks for a coin used to pay the census tax. He then asks whose image is on it. They respond “Caesar.” So He says: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Earthly authority is represented by Caesar. We may see him standing in for any civil authority in a given land, country or among a people. True enough they do have legitimate authority – in some things but not all. “What belongs to God,” is not a reference to a census tax or a temple tax for that matter but to the obedience that is due Him as creator and King.
Jesus has been proclaiming the Kingdom of God since the beginning of His ministry. The King He serves is his heavenly Father. The Pharisees, steeped in knowledge of the law and the prophets, would be well aware if God’s claim to sovereignty. Even when they had the Davidic monarchy, the prophets reminded the Israelites that their true King was God.
The path to life is faithfulness or obedience to God’s way. Surely there is a role and proper authority in civic governance, but even that power is subject to the good, the true and the just.
The tension between the two continues to exist today. Jesus challenges us to ponder this relationship and to determine in different times and ages where those authorities lie.
Isaiah reminds us that earthly power, civic organization into peoples, countries, states, or empires is fleeting or temporary. Cyrus, who he mentions, is the King of Persia.
Some historical context may be helpful in understanding his words. A quick overview may serve our purpose but it does not give justice to all that happened in a long scope of years.
After King Solomon died the Kingdom was torn in two. A northern kingdom which had the name “Israel” and a southern Kingdom which had the name “Judah.” The Assyrian Empire attached and destroyed the Northern Kingdom in 721 BC. People were exiled to different towns, cities and regions of the Assyrian Empire, comingled and were integrated into those societies losing their identity. This group is sometimes called “the lost tribes of Israel.”
The Southern Kingdom was conquered in 587 BC by the Babylonians who had previously conquered the Assyrians. The Babylonians exiled all the leaders of the society (civic, religious, economic, etc.) to Babylon. The big difference here is that they for the most part stayed together, keeping their identity. Fifty or so years later, a new empire is on the rise – Persia. Cyrus is the king of Persia.
Over all these changes the constant is God. He is with his people in the good times and the bad. His love remains steadfast. Although, at times, the people strayed from his way and the covenant, he remains faithful. His ways are mysterious – “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)
Isaiah reminds the people that God can bring good out of the most desperate situations. Cyrus is not the one who will free His people from bondage; God will use Cyrus to free His people. So he writes: “For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me.”
And so, we cry out in response to the psalm: “Give the Lord glory and honor.”
The praise of God not only gives thanks to God for his past interventions and deliverance but renews our faith in his abiding love.
Our praise reminds us that He is the One who has given us life, he has saved us from ourselves and will deliver us again. The horrors of the war in the Holy Land, Ukraine, and the several other spots in the world which do not get much media coverage remind us of the fragility of human society and life.
When the precious gift of life is treated so abhorrently by fellow humans we can easily be overcome by shock, horror, and even fear. And so, our praise of God is an acknowledgement that He is near and a prayer for help.
Mankind and its various societies, cultures, organizations and governance structures when seeking truth, goodness and right, seeking not power but service, can be a great manifestation of God’s plan. As we are reminded by current events, the opposite can also happen.
So where do we look for courage, strength, patience, fortitude, justice and hope? We look to the One who is “…father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6)
And we pray: “In you Lord is our hope; and we shall never hope in vain.” (cf. Te Deum)
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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