29th Sunday ay in Ordinary Time
The Gospels of today and of the two following Sundays proclaim serious lessons that Jesus taught not in the form of parables but within the framework of harsh confrontations with scribes and Pharisees. The Jews of Jesus’ time hated taxes with a passion, mainly because they had to pay them to a hated oppressor, the Roman Empire. There was plenty of evidence of Roman taxation. The Roman census, that caused Mary and Joseph to journey to Bethlehem, was designed to figure out the tax base in Palestine. Romans imposed taxes on water, meat, salt and property. Surely, no topic could unleash a more explosive anger than a discussion of taxes. No question placed to Jesus could be more intimidating.
The Gospel explicitly relates the occasion in which the question was posed amid the bad faith and hypocrisy of Jesus’ interlocutors. Two groups place the tax question to Jesus: The Herodians, who favor appeasing Rome and paying the taxes, and the Pharisees, who hate Rome and heatedly oppose the taxes. Both dislike Jesus; the Herodians because they see him as upsetting the balance of power, and the Pharisees because he is not sufficiently interested in political liberation from Rome. And both groups want Jesus to declare his political position on taxes. But Jesus’ primary goal is the acceptance of the spiritual kingdom of God.
The leaders of the Pharisees remain cleverly in the background. They send some of their disciples. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” The trap set by the Pharisees’ disciples and the Herodian sympathizers is a good one. Whether he answers yes or no, Jesus is lost. If he answers “Yes,” he squarely opposes the popular sentiment and sides with the detested collaborators. If he answers “No,” Herodians are ready to denounce his revolt against the established power. The trap is perfect; Jesus cannot escape. But these “clever” people have overlooked the wisdom of Jesus, who reads the secrets of the heart.
Jesus’ famous reply, based on Caesar’s image and inscription of the coin they showed him, was “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” With this answer, Jesus avoids the trap that appeared to be inescapable. Jesus pronounces the general principle of allegiance to both God and Caesar, without trying to distinguish between the degrees of loyalty. He goes beyong the question asked: Legitimate government has its rights, but God has his rights too. Loyalty, according to Jesus, is not an either/or question. Both the government and God have rightful claims. Both loyalty to the government and to God need to be demonstrated. Jesus takes no partisan position on politics. He does take a position on personal conscience. He sees them as politicians without God. He wants them to begin with God’s kingdom and then come to grips with other issues.
Some have falsely interpreted Jesus’ reply as meaning that we shouldn’t mix politics and religion. Politics is for politicians just as praying is for believers. Sunday is for God; the rest of the week is for us. This kind of mentality is foreign to Jesus. He knew the Scriptures, which show God making use of an evil emperor as well as a good one (1st reading). He knew that, while Israel was the chosen people, the other peoples did not act independently of God. And that whatever happens, at any time, at any place, happens under God’s control. All is his. So Jesus is really saying to his opponents, “You can give that coin to Caesar and still be giving it to God.” Each one “owns” it in his own way. God’s ownership is absolute and eternal. Ours is relative and temporary. In case of conflict, we should obey God rather than humans. Would that every Christian could say what St. Thomas More said: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first”.