by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Then give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s.”
Matthew 22, 15-21
Today’s gospel reading begins with an attempt by the Pharisees (religious scholars) and Herodians (supporters of Herod’s civil rule) to catch Jesus off-guard by flattering him. It doesn’t work. However, politics and government are two topics on which many of us can be drawn out, and eventually trapped. Today’s first reading from Isaiah also touches on the theme of rulers and politics and makes reference to how God can even work through kings to bring about good in the world. So a brief excursion into history and personal experience might help with some background into today’s readings.
Governments, whatever their colour, have a reputation for upsetting the lives of ordinary people. They are a presence from which none of us can escape. Common opinion suggests that they are rarely benevolent, often threatening and always irritating. They can tax us, arrest us, conscript us into military service, torment us with bureaucratic processes and form-filling, and bore us to tears with their speeches. Most of us take part in electing them but rarely see them delivering on the promises which prompted us to vote for them. All too often we find ourselves disillusioned by the way in which they misappropriate the taxes we pay, and by the various corrupt practices in which some politicians engage in order to stay in power.
In today’s first reading, we are given something of a surprise as Isaiah describes Cyrus II, the King of Persia, being used by God to free Israel from slavery in Babylon. Isaiah tells how God took Cyrus by the hand and led him to disarm kings and open gateways. He then proceeds to quote God’s words of assurance to Cyrus: “It is for the sake of my servant Jacob and of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, have given you a title, though you do not know me.” (Isaiah 45, 4)
We know that Jesus knew well the Book of Isaiah, so presumably he had a good opinion of Cyrus II. According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, Cyrus I (grandfather of Cyrus II) knew the vices that caused governments to fall. He lectured a group of his fellow Persians on the fate of governments that became too comfortable, fat and powerful: “Soft countries” declared Cyrus I, “breed soft men!” Herodotus then recorded: “The Persians had to admit that this was true, and chose rather to live in a rugged land and rule themselves, than to cultivate rich plains and be slaves.” (Herodotus, Histories, Book 9, ch. 16)
It’s anybody’s guess as to whether Jesus had even heard of Cyrus I, and, for that matter, the great historian, Herodotus. But we know he lived in a rugged land. And in today’s gospel, the Pharisees were not able to draw him out on what he thought of the Roman government then occupying Israel and getting rich on the taxes it exacted on ordinary citizens. Perhaps he saw them mirroring the good and bad that exists in every society. Maybe he had already come to the conclusion that religion and politics don’t mix, for he certainly didn’t suggest that religion has any magical remedies for dissolving the forces of governments, be they just or unjust. Besides, he realized that he was being baited by religious and civic leaders who were more interested in trapping him than in searching for insights or truth. What’s more, they themselves had not dared to be openly critical of the Roman occupiers.
So, how did Jesus rate with the answer he gave his questioners? His response that Caesar should get what he deserves could be interpreted as dripping with irony. But that all depends on the meaning we give to “what he deserves”. Does Caesar deserve every shekel of the taxes he demanded or does he deserve nothing? But there’s nothing else in the text to suggest that Jesus was using irony. But what Jesus did say is that everyone claiming to be religious has to be discerning and discriminating in responding to the demands and decisions of government.
Support for this approach to government and civil authority can be found in Paul’s letter to the Romans (almost certainly written before Matthew’s Gospel). The words Matthew had put into the mouth of Jesus echo what Paul had already written: “And this is why you should pay taxes, too, because the authorities are all serving God as his agents, even while they are busily occupied with that particular task. Pay to each one what is due to each: taxes to the one to whom tax is due, tolls to the one to whom tolls are due, respect to the one to whom respect is due, honour to the one to whom honour is due. The only thing you should owe to anyone is love for one another, for to love the other person is to fulfill the law.” (Romans 13, 6-8)
Jesus did not go as far as both Isaiah and Paul. He certainly did not say, as they did, that rulers and governments all work for God. And most of us would surely adopt Jesus’ view that we be discerning and discriminating in our responses to government, and to both appointed and elected authority. However, Jesus did make it clear that we can’t hide behind government regulations for our failures to be kind, generous and caring. Love takes precedence over rules and regulations, whatever their source.
By the very fact that they had produced a Roman coin as they questioned Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians answered their own question. By using money with Caesar’s image on it, they declared that they accepted their obligations to Caesar. But Jesus’ answer made it clear that the choices we all have to make in life are rarely as simple as either-or choices. They require us to search and discern, and then to act out of our deepest convictions, to be guided by conscience. And to follow up by taking responsibility for whatever decisions we do make. When we look at our world and see how governments, leaders and politicians vacillate in their decision-making, we often find ourselves shaking our heads in confusion and disbelief. But somehow, we have to go deep into ourselves to connect with God’s guiding Spirit, who helps us to see God’s presence in all that comes our way and in every person we encounter. Then we will be able to deal with the complexities of our world and with the governments and authorities who are supposed to assist us in the task.