Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First reading: Is 45:1, 4-6
Responsorial Psalm: 96:1, 3-5, 7-10
Second reading: 1 Thes 1:1-5
Gospel: Mt 22:15-21
By Jem Sullivan
As I read today’s Gospel, I was reminded of a favorite high school teacher who would ask his students a series of questions to make them think beyond superficial answers. This teacher was never satisfied with a one-word response and was not content with quick answers to his questions.
When students attempted to answer questions, he would ask, “What do you mean by that?” or “Why is this important?” His questions continued until every student had really thought deeply about the subject under discussion.
Good teachers use good questions to engage their students in thinking and learning. In fact, the use of questions in teaching may be traced back to the great teachers and thinkers of ancient Greece. From them, we learn the Socratic method as a dialogue between teachers and students that unfolds through a sequence of questions and answers.
Rather than providing a set of prepared statements to a passive audience, the teacher engages students in active learning by leading them through a series of thought-provoking questions. The student arrives at answers that he or she knows from the inside through a gradual process of questioning.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reveals himself as a master teacher. The Pharisees are off together plotting to trap Jesus in his words. They are not interested in the profound truths of Jesus’ teachings and parables. Instead they are threatened by his words.
Their ambition and pride in their position of authority obscure love of God and neighbor. With malice in their hearts they seek to ambush Jesus with questions in the hope that what he says could be used against him. Jesus, the son of God, knew what was in their minds and hearts. He answers the Pharisees’ trick question with another question that gets to the truth of the matter.
God is the source of all life in the created world. Our existence comes from the loving hand of God, who sustains us in divine love and mercy. All that is created belongs to God in that creation comes from God who is love. So we give to God what rightly belongs to him when we praise and worship God and entrust our lives to God in faith and gratitude.
The psalmist captures what we owe to God when he sings aloud, “For great is the Lord and highly to be praised; awesome is he, beyond all gods.” And St. Paul begins his Letter to the Thessalonians by reminding them to give priority to God in all things when he writes, “We give thanks to God always for all of you.”
The Pharisees pit homage to God against homage to Caesar. This is a false dilemma. Jesus’ question moves beyond their false problem to a right ordering of our hearts and minds to God and to political authority. Jesus invites the Pharisees, and us, to put first things first.
When we put God first, all earthly forms of authority are placed in right order, rather than in competition with God. For the grace to understand the wisdom of Jesus the Teacher we pray, “speak to me, Lord.”
How am I called to put God first in my life?
Sullivan is a professor at The Catholic University of America.