CAESAR AND GOD
(A biblical reflection on the 29th ORDINARY SUNDAY [YEAR A], 18 October 2020)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 22:15-21
First Reading: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Psalms: Psalm 96:1,3-5,7-10; Second Reading: 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b
The Scripture Text
Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle Him in His talk. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for You do not regard the position of men. Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites? Show Me the money for the tax.” And they brought Him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”(Matthew 22:15-21 RSV)
In today’s Gospel the issue is about Caesar’s right to have his hand in Jewish pockets. Two groups come to confront Jesus with the question; they are the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees resented paying taxes to a foreign king as an infringement of the divine right of God. The Herodians, on the other hand, were supporters of king Herod the Great and his family, so favoring collaboration with the Romans and paying taxes to Caesar. These two groups were unnatural associates. The Pharisees and the Herodians are united in their common desire to eliminate Jesus.
Matthew has already developed the story of conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, who now appear committed to bringing about the downfall of the rabbi from Nazareth. Fearing for their own reputation, which has already suffered in open debate with Jesus, they now try to entrap Him. Jesus has already shown that He is not intimidated by the religious authorities into a necessary agreement with their practices; they now test Him to see if Caesar’s imposed rule has intimidated Him into agreeing to pay the annual poll tax.
The delegation tries to lay the ground for the charge of treason: if Jesus denies the need to pay tax to Caesar, He could be charged with treason before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. Failing that, if Jesus answers affirmatively, He will alienate the majority of His fellow countrymen. Either way, it appears that Jesus has to lose.
As a preface to their question, the spies flatter Jesus by addressing Him as “Teacher or Master” and profess their admiration for His impartial teaching of the ways of God. Only then do they ask the question – whether it is lawful for God’s people to pay tribute to Caesar – a question which they have loaded in favor of a negative reply. The tax they refer to is the annual poll tax of one denarius, which was payable to the imperial exchequer by everyone in the land, from the age of puberty to the age of sixty-five. When the tax was first introduced it was the cause of riots and bloodshed. As an annual reminder of Israel’s subjugation to Rome, it still caused grievance among the people.
Matthew mentions that Jesus is aware of His questioners’ malice. He asks to be shown the money for the tax. They hand Him a denarius, the silver coin which bore the image and the inscription of the emperor Tiberius. The fact that Jesus’ questioners can produce the Roman coin might suggest that they recognize the rule of Caesar: many pious Jews refused to use the denarius because it violated the Mosaic prohibition against images.
In His reply Jesus does not answer the original question, but makes an announcement which seems engagingly vague: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It is tempting to interpret the reply as a teaching on temporal and religious obligations, and argue that Jesus is acknowledging the need to pay taxes to Caesar, while stressing one’s primary duty to God: one must pay tribute to Caesar and God, in recognition of one’s dual citizenship.
Jesus, however, does not specify the things that belong to Caesar, for Caesar does not possess anything independently of God; He does not need to specify the things that belong to God, since everything does. Jesus is hardly arguing to two independent spheres of power and obligation, that of Caesar and that of God, with parallel sets of obligation. Since God has dominion over the whole of creation, “Caesar’s relative power is subservient to the ultimate power of God”.
All authority and power have to be evaluated in the light of God’s plan. Jesus’ questioners could hardly have marvelled at His reply if the only thing He did was to avoid a question by a debating trick. In his reply Jesus gives a teaching: it is for the people to evaluate whether in demanding tribute, Caesar is reflecting the things of God. This evaluation continues in every political community. The political arena is not a territory protected from religious evaluation and criticism. If Caesar is subservient to God, then his laws are open to Christian evaluation. In the world of politics nothing is sacred.
Prayer: Holy Spirit, God, may Your breath blow through the halls of governments everywhere. Send me out to transform my own community. Move world leaders to place Your concerns first, so that every nation on earth will be free to adore You. Amen.
Jakarta, 17 October 2020
A Christian Pilgrim