“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Mt. 22:17
We’re all familiar with “gotcha” politics. We witness it daily.
This Sunday’s Gospel sadly reminds us that verbal attempts to maliciously ensnare an enemy have a long history.
Case in point:
Today’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus being initially approached in a very flattering way by his opponents.
First, he is complimented, told how “faithful” he is and praised for being “un-concerned” with people’s opinions. This “charm offensive” is then topped off with the ultimate praise: “you do not regard a person’s status.”
Then, slyly, in the form of an apparently innocent question, comes the “gotcha.” And here it is:
“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
What Jesus is being asked refers to a particular tax that was exacted by the Romans from men, women, and slaves – ages twelve to sixty-five! And this was just one of the many taxes that first century Jews had to pay the Romans: temple taxes, land taxes, and custom taxes, among others.
The burden of all these tolls was enormous.
But this one Jesus is asked about by his enemies was particularly galling to the Jews because it was intended to humiliate them by demanding that they pay a tax used by the Romans to oppress them!
Even worse, the coin that was used to pay the tax was engraved with a picture of Tiberius Caesar along with a proclamation of his divinity.
This was utter blasphemy to the Jews because it forced them to break the first of all the commandments:
“Thou shalt not have false gods before me.”
And, if that humiliation was not enough, the amount of the tax represented a full day’s pay. Once again, the poor were driven further into debt, dependency, and despair.
Jesus is now cornered, purposely put in a complicated dilemma.
If Jesus agrees to the tax, he will be a traitor to the people, and someone who encourages breaking a commandment of God.
If Jesus renounces the tax, he becomes a rebel against the state.
Bottom line: either Jesus betrays his people, or he declares war on Rome.
Instead of falling for the either/or choice, though, what Jesus masterfully does is raise the ethical bar.
He begins by rebuking the Jewish leaders’ question by calling them “hypocrites” because they honor the pagan emperor so that they can collude with him to gain wealth and power, and because they neglect their true citizenship in God’s kingdom.
Then Jesus answers their question with one of his own:
“Whose image is it, and whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” he’s told.
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Unfortunately, Jesus’ response in this situation has often been misunderstood. It has been seen by many as an excuse for separating our civic obligations from the requirements of our faith life.
The result of this interpretation has been to create two separate worlds: one for our social and political life, and another for our faith life.
Possibly the most graphic depiction of this split between two worlds – the spiritual and the worldly – is powerfully dramatized in what one critic called “one of the most masterful scenes ever in a movie”:
The baptism of the godson in the movie The Godfather, Part One.
The scene is classic:
A darkened church, the organ playing sonorously, the family gathered around the baptismal font, and the priest asking the godfather, played by Al Pacino, a searing question that echoes off the walls:
“Do you renounce Satan?”
Just then the scene switches to one of the godfather’s men kicking in a door and murdering someone.
The scene then shifts back to the other-worldly atmosphere of the church with the organ now soaring in the background.
“I do renounce him,” says the godfather solemnly.
Again, the scene changes to a second murder.
Then, back to the quiet gravity of the church. The priest then asks the next question:
“And all his works?”
The scene suddenly switches to still another hideous execution. Then back to the church. The godfather speaks softly again:
“I do renounce them.”
After which we witness yet another murderous spectacle.
Again, back to the church. The priest asks still another question:
“And all his pomps?”
Another murderous scene takes place and is followed by Pacino answering softly:
“I do renounce them.”
This kind of separation into two worlds is clearly not what Jesus intended by the question posed in today’s Gospel.
Instead, this Gospel confrontation is meant to urge each of us to recognize to whom we ultimately belong and in whose image we have been created.
We’re reminded that our allegiance, our fidelity, is to the one true Lord – not to any modern-day Caesar.
Today’s Gospel is underscoring the ultimate truth that there are not two separate worlds in which we live – only one:
“… what belongs to God.”
This understanding, this conviction, should influence every dimension of how we live, and permeate every choice we make. For, as Psalm 24 reminds us:
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”
The two worlds are to become one in Jesus.
The Kingdom of God that Jesus preached is a kingdom in which mercy and peace reign supreme; a kingdom in which all people can live with dignity; a kingdom in which the promise of hope and liberation can be shared by all.
Perhaps the prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God in our first reading today, said it best when he proclaimed:
“I am the Lord, there is no other.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.
Amid the horrific war now so painfully present in the Middle East,
let us daily pray the words of the great man of peace, St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, Make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred …. let me sow love.
Where there is injury …. pardon.
Where there is doubt …. faith.
Where there is despair …. hope.
Where there is darkness …. Light.
Where there is sadness …. Joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled …. As to console,
To be understood …. As to understand,
To be loved …. As to love.
For it is in giving … that we receive,
It is in pardoning … that we are pardoned,
It is dying that … that we are born to eternal life.