by Br Ian McDonald cfc

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Matthew 22: 15-21

Today‘s gospel-reading is an excellent illustration of Jesus’ astuteness in dealing with a political trap into which some of his inquisitors tried to lead him. Because of his teaching, preaching and support of the lower classes, Jesus was in the public eye. As a consequence, he had to take special care not to say or do anything that the leaders of the Roman Occupation Force or their minions might interpret as critical or offensive. The prevailing relationship between the Jewish people of Jesus’ day and their Roman occupiers was one of fragile, mutual tolerance, at best.

When Jesus saw that the group that had come to question him was made up of Herodians (sympathisers of the very violent Herod Antipas) and adherents of the Pharisees, he immediately smelt a rat, and labelled the group for what they were – shameless hypocrites. From honest, well-intentioned people, struggling with oppressive rule of tax-gouging invaders, a question about whether to cave in and pay or staunchly resist might well have been a genuine one. But Jesus immediately sensed the trap his questioners were endeavouring to set for him. The answer he gave was both clever and deliberately confusing, leaving his inquisitors to work out what belongs to God and what to Caesar.

Reflection on this incident led me to stop and list for myself the extraordinary range of powers we invest in legitimately elected leaders of nations founded on the principles of democracy. There is no accounting for what can happen in nations where oppression and repression rule supreme. Even those of us who belong to countries whose governments are democratically elected sometimes catch ourselves wondering if we have elected charlatans to leadership or are being manipulated by a bunch of self-interested wheelers and dealers more interested in position and status than in governance. These are people who sometimes give us hope but who also find ways of variously threatening, frustrating and irritating us. So, let’s just list some of the powers we invest in them. They can tax us, ration our food, water and electricity, conscript us to fight in wars, arrest us, prevent us from protesting and demonstrating in public, torment us with bureaucratic compliance directives, frustrate us with forms to be filled, and fine us if we fail to vote in local, state and national government elections.

Jesus and his inquisitors all lived in a land where oppression and repression reigned. He and his inquisitors knew that any direct or veiled criticism of the occupying, ruling powers risked severe reprisals. So, in answering the question put to him, he recommended discrimination and restraint. There was potential ambiguity in his saying that Caesar ought be given what Caesar deserved. What is deserved by a ruler who orders his army to invade another country in order to get rich and reduce ordinary people to struggle and destitution? But Jesus was in a position in which he, too, was forced to discriminate. Personal safety for him lay in his being wise enough not to elaborate on what he might think Caesar really deserved. He also left it to his inquisitors, a mixture of overtly religious and irreligious people, to decide what God deserved from them. As followers of Jesus, we, too, surely have to discern for ourselves what we expect to give to God who is the source of all we have and are. There are ironies woven into this incident as well. Jesus was challenging his inquisitors to stop and ponder whether or not they knew and understood that they were made in the image of God and that everything they were and had was God’s gift.

There was a second irony in the fact that, when Jesus asked for a coin from those who smugly believed they had him trapped, they produced a Roman coin bearing the image of Tiberias Caesar, son of the Emperor, Augustus. Augustus was regarded by the Romans as a god. The obverse of the coin bore the inscription pontifex maximus, alerting the world to Augustus’ status as “most high priest”. For a Jew to have that coin on his person was to open himself to defilement and to risk being labelled as a worshipper of a false god. The inquisitors condemned themselves inadvertently through the clumsy execution of trickery which backfired on them. Through our birth and baptism, we all bear the inscription: “Made in the image of God”.

The hypocrisy of those who tried to trap Jesus into drawing down on himself either the hostility of the Romans or the condemnation of the Jewish religious leaders is intensified by the clear indication that they were not interested in a genuinely discerned answer to their question. Their interest was only in tricking Jesus into giving an answer that would trigger his own downfall. Instead, he gave an answer that sheeted home to every serious-minded and well-intentioned citizen the responsibility of discerning how to deal with challenges that emanated from decisions made by those in the seat of government.

In this context, I suggest that it is worth our while to digress into reading a commentary on government which Paul offered to the Christian community of Rome in a much more congenial context well after the death and resurrection of Jesus:

“Everyone is to obey the governing authorities because there is no authority except from God and so whatever authorities exist have been appointed by God. So, anyone who disobeys an authority is rebelling against God’s ordinance; and rebels must expect to receive the condemnation they deserve. Magistrates bring fear not to those who do good, but to those who do evil. So, if you want to live with no fear of authority, live honestly and you will have its approval; it is there to serve God for you and for your good. But if you do wrong, then you may well be afraid; because it is not for nothing that the symbol of authority is the sword: it is there to serve God, too, as his avenger, to bring retribution to wrongdoers. You must be obedient, therefore, not only because of this retribution, but also for conscience’s sake. 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. Avoid getting into debt, except the debt of mutual love. If you love your fellows, you have carried out your responsibilities. (Romans 13: 1-8)

Today’s first reading from Isaiah resonates more closely with Paul than it does with the Jesus of today’s gospel-reading. Isaiah tells of how God used the pagan king of Persia, Cyrus II to free the people of Israel from Babylonian oppression: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom the Lord has taken by his right hand to subdue nations before him and strip the loins of kings, to force gateways before him that their gates be closed no more… It is for the sake of my servant Jacob, of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, conferring on you a title, though you do not know me” (Isaiah 45: 1 & 4).
The repeated confrontations that Jesus had with the religious authorities of his day are testimony to his opinion of them as having the same human strengths and frailties as the people they were appointed to serve.
Perhaps therein lies an invitation to us to be more tolerant towards our elected and appointed leaders and to be more discerning in considering their decisions and directives and less trenchant in our criticism of them.