The way the Order of Readings for Mass, more popularly known as "the Lectionary," is designed for Sundays in Ordinary Time (note that is Sundays in, not of, Ordinary Time) is that we read in a semi-continuous manner from the Synoptic Gospel on which we focus during any given year of the three-year cycle. This year being Year A, we focus on St. Matthew's Gospel. On Sundays in Ordinary Time, the Old Testament reading is chosen to harmonize with the Gospel.
In case you're curious, for the New Testament readings for Sundays in Ordinary Time, we read through the Letters of the New Testament also in a semi-continuous manner. Last week ended four consecutive weeks during which we read from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians. Reading from Philippians came on the heels of reading from the Apostle's Letter to the Romans for 12 weeks. These twelve weeks were interrupted by the Feast of the Transfiguration on 6 August. During Year A, we are slated to read from Romans for sixteen consecutive weeks (Sundays 9-24 in Ordinary Time). This is always interrupted by Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi. In addition to the Transfiguration falling on Sunday this year (it is a fixed feast, celebrated on 6 August- it trumps the Sunday in Ordinary Time on years it falls on a Sunday), there was no Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time this year because the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which ends Christmas for Roman Catholics in the U.S., fell on a Monday. We celebrated Trinity and Corpus Christi on what were the Tenth and Eleventh Sundays in Ordinary Time. This accounts for why 12 rather than 16. We will read from 1 Thessalonians from now through the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, the penultimate Sunday of the liturgical year. Each liturgical year ends with The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
While there was some effort made to harmonize the New Testament readings with the Old Testament and Gospel readings for Sundays in Ordinary Time, the main focus is on reading through the New Testament letters of St. Paul, St. James, and the Letter to the Hebrews in a semi-continuous manner. We read in a similar way from 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation during the Sundays of Easter in Years, A, B, & C respectively.
Okay, that's what you get when your faithful blogger spends a month preparing a class on the Lectionary for the Deacon Candidates of his diocese.
Without a doubt rendering to God what is God's is more difficult than rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's. How so? Well, in the end, nothing belongs to Caesar and everything belongs to God. This is made clear in our first reading. Our first reading is taken from the section of the Book of Isaiah known as Deutero-Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah, as we possess it now, consists of three books from the same prophetic school. These three books are cleverly referred to as First, Second, and Third Isaiah. More impressively, we call them Proto-, Deutero-, and Trito-Isaiah. Proto-Isaiah, which consists of words from Isaiah ben-Amoz, the prophet Isaiah himself, consists of the first thirty-nine chapters of the book and date from before the Babylonian exile of Israel. This exile spanned from ~597-538 B.C. Deutero-Isaiah, in the prophetic "school" of Isaiah, consists of chapters 40-55 and was likely written during the exile, but towards its end. Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56-66) are post-exilic, dating from after this exile.
Our first reading for today sits comfortably in Deutero-Isaiah. Cyrus the Great, the king of an expansive empire, is the ruler referred to in today's reading as God's "anointed," which means Messiah. Cyrus is the only non-Jew in the Bible referred to as God's anointed. By all accounts, judged by the standards of the ancient Near East, he was a benevolent ruler. What this reading, when harmonized with today's Gospel, is meant to show us is that God works his design even through those, like Cyrus, who do not know him. Those who do not know God do not worship him or seek to self-consciously follow his commandments. Stated more succinctly, Cyrus (and Caesar) is subject to God whether they acknowledge God or not. This reading ends with the statement, made by God through his prophet: "I am the LORD, there is no other" (Isa 45:6). Or, as our responsorial Psalm puts it: "For all the gods of the nations are things of nought" (Ps 96).
I think our New Testament reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians can be harmonized with our reading from Isaiah, our Psalm, and the Gospel. Further, I believe it can be harmonized in a way that is most relevant to us now. Our point of departure is rendering to God what is God's. As much as everything belonging to God, everyone belongs to God. A Christian is a person who not only understands she belongs to God, but who willingly acknowledges this and submits herself to God out of love for God, which extends to love of neighbor. In our first reading, the prophet tells us Israel was chosen by God. The Church, which, according St. Paul and her own self-understanding, is the new and true Israel, is chosen by God. This is what the Apostle meant when he wrote: "knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen" (1 Thess 1:4).
St. Paul reminded the Church in ancient Thessaloniki that the Gospel is not mere words or even conviction, but come in power and in the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Gospel is spread by witness, not by words. Another word for witness is martyr.
Rendering to God what is God's means giving ourselves to God for service to others in imitation of Christ regardless of circumstances or consequences. When we talk about participating in Mass we tend to focus on what we receive, which is nothing less than Christ himself whole and entire- body, blood, soul, and divinity. as we like to phrase it. We need to also be attuned to what we give in return- ourselves whole and entire- body, blood, soul, and humanity. In Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Father takes our nothingness and makes it a powerful force- the force of love, which is neither a force of violence nor of political coercion.
Some early Christians who chose to be brutally martyred rather than put a pinch of incense on coals as an act of worship to the emperor understood well what the Lord taught in today's Gospel: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. As the Apostle wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, which is the only one of his letters we read during each of the years of the Sunday lectionary cycle:
So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God (1 Cor. 3:21-23)