29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
|Titian: Whose Coin is This?|
In the past few weeks we have seen that Jesus has become increasingly critical of the leaders of the Jews, especially the Scribes and Pharisees. Matthew tells us that in response they have begun to plot against Jesus. In today’s gospel they try to lay a trap for Jesus by asking him if is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the leader of the hated Roman empire that holds the Jewish people in subjugation.
In their long history the Jews had often been subjugated by foreign rulers. About 700 years before Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah told of another conqueror, the Persian King Cyrus. Isaiah argued that this great King was actually doing the Lord’s work without even knowing it.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
So that towards the rising and the setting of the sun
People may know that there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, there is no other.
We know that the relationship between Church and State was an important issue to our Founding Fathers. The very first amendment to the new Constitution forbad the new federal government from establishing or supporting any church. Although we have always argued about the proper relationship between Church and State, the American way seems to involve a separation of church and state.
In the time of Jesus there was no such separation. The head of the mighty Roman Empire was also considered to be the head of the Roman religion. Some emperors had even been declared to be gods. The Jews regarded the Almighty as their true King, and so their political leaders were also their religious leaders. Their law was a religious law and governed every aspect of their lives.
There was bound to be conflict and tension when the Jews were conquered by the Romans. Even though the Romans could be cruel and brutal when the need arose, they had a way of dealing with conquered peoples that would seem strange to us today. In general Rome believed in leaving conquered people to be governed by their own traditional leaders, laws, and customs. They only insisted that these native leaders keep peace and order, and collect the taxes or tribute demanded by the Empire.
This situation is the background of the scene in Matthew’s account where the leaders of the Jews try to draw Jesus into a trap. They are out to get him not only because of his criticism of them, but also because of his popularity among the people. They ask him a loaded question:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
If Jesus answered that paying the tax violated Jewish law, they would be able to bring charges of sedition and treason against him to the Roman governor. If he answered that it was ok, then they hoped it would turn the Jewish populace against him.
The answer of Jesus confounded his powerful enemies.
“Show me the coin that pays the census tax ... whose image is this and whose inscription?” When they replied, “Caesar’s”, he said,
Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar And to God what belongs to God.
Not only did the answer of Jesus confound the Jewish leaders, but it also has confounded theologians and political scholars ever since. What exactly belongs to the State? What belongs to God? What is the relationship between the civil authority and religious authority?
I think that Jesus is saying that we do have a dual citizenship. As citizens here in the United States we have rights and duties that pertain to our status as citizens. We can be critical of leaders and laws because that right and duty belongs to us as citizens. But we are also subject to a King whose realm transcends our national boundaries. I am not talking about the Pope because he is subject to that same King.
Hopefully, our dual loyalties will act together in much the same way that the laws of Connecticut will not conflict with the laws of the United States. For the most part in America they have gone hand in hand although there are signs today that Caesar might be overstepping his boundaries.
In many parts of the world today our fellow Christians are being persecuted, tortured, and even murdered because of their refusal to bow to the demands of their brutal captors. Those people are giving all they have for their belief in God.
We can only hope that we will never be put in this position.
The best safeguard against attacks on religious freedom in this country is for us all to do our duty and act as responsible citizens. We must respect and follow the laws when they are just, but oppose and seek to change them when they are unjust.
Reading 1. Isaiah 45: 1, 4-6
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-5b
Gospel. Matthew 22: 15-21 (Render to Caesar)