29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

My Dear People

In today’s Gospel Jesus is questioned about paying taxes to the Roman emperor. The issue was a hotly debated one in first-century Palestine where the imperial taxation of Judea was burdensome on the economy and deeply resented by Jews who longed for national independence.  Taxes were a painful reminder that God’s people were living under the heel of a foreign power. The Pharisees hope Jesus will admit to something that is either politically incriminating or personally discrediting.

The Evangelist informs us the Pharisees are up to no good.  Devising a trap to ensnare Jesus, the Pharisees team up with the Herodians.  The Herodians are political supporters of the Herodian dynasty and its cooperative relationship with Rome. To put it mildly, these two groups are neither friends nor allies of each other. The Pharisees are religious patriots, bitterly opposed to Roman rule, whereas the Herodians are content to work with the Gentile powers that be. The present alliance is made solely for the purpose of bringing down the Messiah. 

Their devious intent is camouflaged behind extravagant flattery. Courteously addressing Jesus as Teacher, they gush phrases with one compliment after another. “He is said to be a truthful man who teaches the way of God and is not influenced by anyone else’s opinion or status.”  Jesus is now primed, they presume, to speak his mind boldly.

The trap comes in the form of a question: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?  The Pharisees are trying to force Jesus into a dilemma. By giving him only two options for an answer, they hope to back him into one of two predicaments. If Jesus affirms the legitimacy of the tax, he will appear to be a Roman sympathizer, discrediting himself in the eyes of numerous Jews, for whom the Romans’ rule of Judea was an intolerable burden. On the other hand if Jesus forbids paying the tax, the Herodians are sure to report him to Roman  authorities for instigating a tax revolt.  

Immediately Jesus detects their malice and knows that they are testing him. So, he asks them to show him the coin that pays the census tax. Little did they realize what was happening. By producing the coin issued for the tax, the Pharisees are publicly exposed as hypocrites. They may oppose Roman taxation in principle, but apparently, they are in the habit of paying it just like every other Palestinian Jew. Holding up the coin, Jesus asks: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” The coin in question is the silver Roman Denarius. It was stamped with a side view of the head of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor from AD 14 to 37, accompanied by an inscription that hailed him “the son of the divine Augustus.” On the flip side of the coin he was declared “high priest.” This overly religious claim could not have been more offensive to Jewish sensibilities.

Next, we hear the anticipated response. Instead of walking into the trap. Jesus slips through it, taking advantage of the situation to make an important point.  He says: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  

 Just as Jesus exposed his interrogators as hypocrites, he now exposes their question as a false dilemma. He is saying that political and religious obligations can both be legitimately met. Paying taxes is not a compromise of one’s duties toward God,  nor does serving God exempt one from supporting the civil government. If the Roman coin bears Caesar’s image, then it belongs to him and should be given back to him.

But, what is it, that “belongs to God?” It is the human person who bears the image of the living God (Gen 1:26-27). So, our highest obligation in life—and one that is imposed on every man, woman,  and child, regardless of nationality or citizenship—is to give ourselves back to our Maker. 

Sincerely Yours, 

Fr. Vincent Clemente



There are no comments yet - be the first one to comment: