29th Sunday in Ord. Time – 18th October 2020 — Gospel: Mt 22,15-21
Belonging to God in all our Being
The gospel presents the setting of a trap for Jesus by the Pharisees and Herodians. These two groups were ideologically and politically opposed to each other. The former opposed the Roman Empire and the latter actively worked in favour of Roman authority. They both knew fully well the consequences of defying the Roman Empire. They put aside their many differences for a moment, and come together on the issue of taxation because of their shared disdain for Jesus. Here we have failed attempt by the Pharisees and Herodians on this political issue. The tax in view is the census tax, per person tax of a denarius (22,19). This poll tax was very unpopular among Jewish people at the time. The motivation of the opposed groups is twofold: if Jesus answers yes, then he could be perceived in agreement with Rome, justifying Roman occupation and oppression of the Jews. This would bring him in trouble with Pharisees and Jewish people. On the other hand, if he answers no, he could be suspected of being revolutionary against Rome and he would be in trouble with Roman authorities and Herodians.
Jesus is aware of their malice behind their flattering words and fabricated smiles, so he responds with a visual aid. He asks them to identify whose image is on the coin. When they identify the emperor’s face and title, Jesus delivers an amazing and an ambiguous one-liner: “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and return to God what is God’s” (22,21). The beauty of Jesus’ answer is that he both concedes payment of the census tax while undermining the reach of the emperor. The tax should be paid, since the emperor’s image and inscription on the coin would identify who controls the economy. In one way, Jesus affirms that his disciples need to submit to governing authorities. They are called to be an honest and exemplary citizen. Nevertheless, the question of paying taxes had surfaced previously in a conversation with Peter (Mt 17,24-27). Jesus then encouraged Peter to pay taxes so as not to offend the empire. Yet from another angle, Jesus affirms the all-encompassing reach of God’s ownership. He teaches that allegiance to God supersedes allegiance to Rome and its emperor.
Paying taxes acknowledges Rome’s political power but not its moral authority to rule. That moral authority belongs to God. That’s why Jesus quickly adds that one must pay to God the things that are due to God. While people pay taxes to Rome out of obligation, they must pay to God because of their calling and their commitment to promote an alternative kingdom. But the “coinage” of God’s kingdom is radically different from Caesar’s. God does not trade in Caesar’s currency. The whole nature of God’s kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated, and is inviting people to participate in, is fundamentally at odds with Caesar’s. That is why people must pay both Caesar and God. They must pay them not only for different reasons, but in entirely different currencies. Paying to God and participating in the divine kingdom entails repenting of the ways they have taken unlawfully or wrongly. However, they must actively work to promote an alternative kingdom proposed by Jesus.
If the denarius had to be “returned” to Caesar because it bears the face of his master, then what bears God’s image belongs to God. That is, we ourselves and also our neighbours must be “returned” to God, because we belong to him. Therefore, no matter what government we live under, our first allegiance must be to God. God gave us things to use and people to love; we fall into sin when we get that backwards. We don’t belong to anything or to anyone else. We don’t even belong to ourselves. That is, human beings are sacred and no one can take him as his own. Those who make them their own (enslave, oppress, exploit, dominate and use them, as an object) should immediately return him to his Lord. We belong to God in all our being, with all our talents, interests, time and wealth.