Gospel Reflection Oct 18 – Fr. Morris
Sunday, October 18
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 22: 15-21
The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”
Immersed as we are in the final weeks of the election year, we can appreciate in a special way Our Lord’s deft political answer in this Sunday’s Gospel. In the political landscape of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Herodians, the Zealots and the secular Hellenists would have been at odds with each other, fighting amongst themselves on a range of policy topics: Should they accede to the Roman Empire’s governance or rise up in armed rebellion? How much of the Greco-Roman culture should Jews adopt? And they were also divided on religious topics: What constituted Divine Revelation, just the writings of Moses or later books like the Prophets? Was the current Temple priesthood descended from a valid Levitical succession line? Was the Greek-translation (the Septuagint) of the Scriptures valid, or only the Hebrew original texts?
Whilst these groups would rail at each other on these topics and more, in Jesus they seem to find a common opponent. In the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy…”, we find some very odd coalitions sprinkled throughout the New Testament where the Sadducees and the Pharisees (or the Pharisees and the Herodians as in this Sunday’s Gospel) put aside their partisan squabbling to attack Jesus together. Their trap in this Gospel is especially dastardly, because they were trying to literally “take out” their theo-political opponent by making him say something that would incriminate him to the Roman civil authorities. Less we forget, the “Cancel Culture” of the Roman Empire didn’t mean you lost your job and social media reputation– you were going to lose your life. And you were going to lose it slowly, publicly, and painfully. Being exceedingly efficient, the Imperial authorities combined their capital punishment sentences with their public service messaging, providing a clear and concise visual of why acceptance of continued Roman rule was advantageous to one’s own person.
Jesus of course is well-aware of His enemies’ ends, and replies in such a way that He not only sidesteps the trap while adhering to the Truth, but He also shuts down this line of attack to His accusers in the future. Any inquiry from a Roman civil official investigating future accusations that Jesus was saying “don’t pay Imperial taxes” would now find numerous witnesses that would say “No, no, we all clearly heard Jesus say publicly, “pay to Caesar what is owed to Caesar.”
As Christians are called to be “in” the world but not “of” the world, we are called to be participants “in” politics and civic life, but not to be “of” politics. We participate in politics to actualize the principles of our Faith, not to replace our divinely-revealed Faith with political ideologies created by mere human intellects. We must render unto Caesar, we must respect Caesar, we must work with Caesar to achieve good ends–but unlike those august pagans, the Roman Senators of old, we must never agree that we will worship Caesar as a Divinity.
-Fr. Matthew Morris