Click here for the readings - Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time [Cycle A]
What is the context of this Gospel passage?
For review, we’re near the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), and he’s been preaching publicly in the Temple area. He’s just finished telling three consecutive parables (the father with two sons; the owner of a vineyard; the king who threw a wedding feast) that not-so-subtly impugn the religious leaders of Jerusalem as hypocrites who focus more on outward appearances of righteousness than on internal conformity with the Law as it is intended to guide people closer to God.
Here, the religious leaders strike back. Notably, though, they are not alone in their attempts to, as the Gospel author says, “entrap Jesus in speech.” The Pharisees--who were strict doctrinal adherents who valued knowledge of and fidelity to the letter of the Law above all else--pair up with the Herodians. The Herodians are individuals who represent the Court of King Herod. Remember, Palestine in the time of Jesus is an occupied territory. Rome is the Empire controlling the entire region, and they have placed a Roman Governor--Pontius Pilate--in charge of administering Jerusalem and its surrounding lands. But because the family of Herod, who themselves were Jews, had been successfully ruling part of the region--specifically the part where Jesus grew up, Galilee--the Romans allowed Herod and his clan to remain in power, so long as all of the taxes were paid and peace was maintained.
Because Herod and his people were Jews who cooperated with the occupying forces, they were despised by the majority of Jews, the Pharisees being no exception. So for the Pharisees, who would have seen cooperation with the foreign power as abhorrent and sacrilegious, to cooperate with the Herodians was an extraordinary thing indeed! It would be like, in our contemporary context, members of the Taliban cooperating with public officials who were part of the government established and upheld by the United States.
Obviously Jesus had managed to upset groups from pretty much every segment of society, if such disparate factions were willing to come together to plot against him!
So what happens in this scene?
In full view of the crowds, and under the watchful eye of the Roman authorities (remember, this is during Passover, when Jerusalem swelled to receive hundreds of thousands of Jews for the religious observance, and when the Roman authorities would have been on high alert for any potential unrest... something that was especially the case now that Jesus
had made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem through hordes of adoring crowds) the Herodians and Pharisees ask Jesus whether it’s lawful to pay a tax to Caesar. If Jesus says that, “Yes,” one should pay the tax to Caesar, he will both (a) run afoul of the Jews who are listening, and (b) seemingly discredit himself as a religious authority with standing among the Pharisees, Sadduccees, and Scribes. Why?
Well, as stated, the Roman Empire was a foreign, occupying force, so the inhabitants of the Holy Land deeply resented being forced to pay taxes to them. No one likes to pay taxes, but the affront is magnitudinally more galling when the money is going to an external army that suppresses your basic right to self-determination! (The American Revolution was set off when inhabitants of the Colonies decided that they had had enough of paying taxes to the British monarchy on the other side of the ocean!)
Moreover, the coins themselves were stamped with the image of Caesar--a graven image that seemed to attest not only to the claims that Caesar was the rightful ruler, but that he was, in fact, also a divine being. For Roman citizens, Caesar was esteemed as a god, and so to handle this currency, much less actively participate in a system of taxation paying it, would seem to fly in the face of the Biblical commandment that the LORD alone is God,
and that followers ought to “have no other gods beside me,” nor make any graven images or idols. So for Jesus to say it was lawful to use these coins would be to offend both the average Jew and the religious authorities.
But--and here is where the trap is laid--for Jesus to claim it was unlawful to pay the tax would be to invite arrest at the hands of the Roman authorities. With all of these thousands of people gathered in the streets of Jerusalem to listen to Jesus’ words, the Roman soldiers would have been extremely nervous about the possibility of an uprising. All it would have taken was for Jesus to say that Rome should not be paid its tax--which would constitute an act of sedition--and the Roman leaders could have thrown Jesus in jail for attempting to incite a riot.
Instead, Jesus cleverly avoids both of these negative outcomes by asking the interrogators to produce the coin. The fact that they are able to do so shows that they, too, are complicit in this system of cooperation with Rome (else how else would they have had the coin in their own pockets?) Moreover, it allows Jesus to flip the question on its head, by implicitly demanding to know, “Sure this piece of metal belongs to Caesar, but what belongs properly to God? Are YOU giving that part of your life to God?”
So what does it have to do with us?
Like the first followers of Jesus, we, too, go about our lives as “dual citizens.” We are
members both of an earthly, political society, and of a faith community that foreshadows participation in an eternal realm, the Kingdom of Heaven. As citizens of, for instance, the United States of America, we are bound to follow duly enacted laws, even if they are
sometimes unpleasant or even morally challenging. But as persons of faith, we are called also to question the morality of these laws, and to ask how we are compelled to take action with respect to political life.
A good example: the Catholic Church has stated, unequivocally, that the use of nuclear weapons can never be morally justified. Due to the disproportionate and indiscriminate damage inevitably wrought by such weapons, the use of nuclear arms is expressly condemned by official Church documents. And yet, a member of the military might be given a direct order to, for instance, fly an Air Force bomber armed with tactical nukes, or to serve aboard an attack submarine similarly armed. And certainly our federal taxes are used to create and maintain an overarching military arsenal that includes nuclear weapons.
Since the legalization of abortion in 1973, the Catholic Church has been a vocal supporter of the Hyde Amendment, a federal amendment added to the Budget each year that bars federal funding from going towards abortion. Similar to today’s Gospel passage, Church leaders object to the taxes of religious persons being used to finance a procedure that the Church condemns as morally indefensible. More recently, various Catholic institutions have filed lawsuits attempting to avoid the HHS Mandate requiring employers to provide access to contraception as part of health insurance plans.
These issues are difficult and potentially fraught with conflict, but the Church has long
maintained that, to be an authentic follower of Jesus requires that we be faithful citizens of both Kingdoms--the secular, earthly one, and the eternal, Heavenly one. For this reason, the US Bishops put out a publication known as “Faithful Citizenship,” that articulates broad principles for us to keep in mind as we go to the polls to elect our representatives. In this Gospel scene, we are reminded that having dual citizenship can sometimes place us in a difficult bind, but fortunately, we are equipped with two thousand years of thinking about these issues, as well as myriad contemporary resources as we go about trying to discern what, exactly we ought to “render to Caesar,” and what, of ourselves, we owe to God.
Questions for Reflection
1.) Have you ever found yourself feeling conflicted about faith and politics?
2) Are there any particular political or social issues that cause you particular anxiety?
3) What are your thoughts on the role of religion in public life? Should it be a private thing? A public thing? Somewhere in between?
4) How can you try to render unto both God and Caesar what is rightful to each?