Thought for the day
The relationship between religious faith and public life is perplexing. In some societies, even today, there is virtually no difference between the two. In other, more secular societies, any expression of religious conviction is unacceptable in public. It is true of course that there is an appropriate distinction and even separation to be made, as indeed Jesus does make today in the Gospel. But on at least two issues, there is bound to be some crossover. Religious faith informs our values and in society today policies and laws must be grounded, not in a particular faith certainly, but in values nevertheless.
Lord, we need your wisdom to tell what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. Send your Holy Spirit into the heart of all believers that we may be true to ourselves and tolerant towards people with whom we disagree.
Matt 22:15 Then the Pharisees went out and planned together to entrap Jesus with his own words. 16 They sent to him their disciples along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You do not court anyone’s favor because you show no partiality. 17 Tell us then, what do you think? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Matt 22:18 But Jesus realized their evil intentions and said, “Hypocrites! Why are you testing me? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought him a denarius. 20 Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” 21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
For places where Mission Sunday is not marked today, we follow the lectionary in Ordinary Time. The First Reading and the Gospel are somewhat disconcerting. The reading from Isaiah portrays God using the recent Persian empire to achieve his will while the Gospel shows Jesus distinguishing and separating politics and faith. The relationship between the two is never total separation and never total overlap, as we know.
Kind of writing
Like many of these stories, this is technically a chreia or anecdote, this time in form of a question and answer and concluding with a sententia, a kind proverbial saying with its own power.
In Matthew, Jesus is shown teaching in the Temple in 21:23-22:46. There are really two parts of which our reading opens the second part, 22:15-46. The purpose of this section seems to be to expose the inadequacy of the teachers of Israel. Pharisees and Sadducees are profiled in futile disputes intended to trip up Jesus. There are three moments: (a) a question about paying taxes to Caesar (22:15-22); (b) a question about the resurrection (22:23-33); and (c) a question about the greatest commandment (22:34-40).
The unity across this Temple section may be seen in the opening and closing remarks: So they answered Jesus, “We do not know” (Matt 21:27) and No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matt 22:46)
A scholar called Daube has noticed that the four “cases” in this section follow the categories of rabbinic discussion: (i) wisdom—the tax; (ii) ridiculing a belief—the resurrection; (iii) moral conduct—the greatest commandment; (iv) legend—the question about David. Once again, there is more to these supposedly simple stories than meets the eye.
An event earlier in the first century helps us grasp what is at stake. In ad 6, there was a revolt by Judas of Galilee against the imposition by the Romans of the poll tax. The grounds given were that it was tantamount to idolatry. Judas and his sons were crucified. The “innocent” or “theoretical” question is therefore fraught with real danger.
The modern reader may also miss what an ancient reader would never miss: the Pharisees have in their pockets in the temple precincts coins bearing the image of Tiberius. It was precisely to prevent such an eventuality that the money changers existed, out of respect for the ban on graven images.
Old Testament background
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4)
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Deuteronomy 5:8)
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut 6:4–5)
New Testament foreground
When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.” (Matthew 17:24–27)
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. (Matthew 21:12)
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. (Romans 13:1–4)
Verse 15 Before we hear the story, the ill-will of the Pharisees is laid bare. It may be that they hope not only to discredit Jesus but also to gather information for use against him. The malevolence is linked to the last mention of the Pharisees in 21:45. Much earlier, we read: But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. (Matthew 12:14) Testing Jesus has occurred before: 16:1 and 19:3.
Verse 16 The subject of the infinitive (actually a present participle in Greek) is evidently the Pharisees, who are thereby speaking through their disciples. This is the only mention in the New Testament of the disciples of the Pharisees and they are linked with the Herodians elsewhere only in Mark 3:6.
The mention of the Herodians suggests some kind of collaboration with supporters of Herod and his dynasty, although it is unclear what that might have entailed. At the time, there was even a synagogue entitled “of the Herodians” in Rome.
The opening speech is a manipulative captatio benevolentiae to disarm Jesus with flattery. They give themselves away however with the term teacher which, in Matthew, is regularly on the lips of non-disciples (8:19; 9:11; 12:38; 17:24; 19:16; 22:24). The hypocrisy is both enormous and evident. Jesus is being invited to incriminate himself.
Verse 17 A very clever question because both yes and no could be used against Jesus. The poll tax was a painful reminder of the Roman occupation.
Verse 18 In this Gospel, Jesus has from time to time special knowledge (12:15; 16:8; 20:10). Matthew upgrades Mark’s hypocrisy to malice. The term “hypocrites” is then used further on. Test is used only of Jesus in this Gospel: 4:1, 3; 16:1; 19:3; 22:35.
Verse 19 People were obliged to pay the tax in Roman coinage. The denarius was a Roman silver coin weighing originally about 4.55 grams. It was a worker’s average daily wage and features frequently in Matthew (Matt 18:28; 20:2, 9-10, 13; 22:19).
Verse 20 The word of image is eikōn (whence icon). The inscription would read something like this: Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus. Idolatry in image and in deed. Precisely because of such imagery and idolatry, these coins could not be used in the Temple.
Verse 21 The emperor is literally Caesar. A double answer: Caesar’s name is on it, therefore, it is his. Giving it back would be a way of getting rid of it, because an observant Jew ought not to have had such a thing in his possession. Furthermore, Caesar may be satisfied by getting just “his” money back. God, however, is altogether more all-encompassing in his expectations! In light of a thorough recognition of who God is, the pedestrian business of paying a tax shrinks into insignificance.
We see here that Jesus was no zealot or revolutionary. At the same time, however, he put the priority not on loyalty to secular government but on loyalty to God, a choice “costing not less than everything.” In this way Jesus manages more than a clever avoidance strategy; on the contrary, the attack becomes the occasion for teaching a full submission of self to God. The state does indeed have legitimate claims but each human being, in a total sense, belongs to God and to God alone.
Pointers for prayer
1. The story sees a mixture of religion and politics, a potentially explosive combination. Jesus does not ask us to avoid politics, but that our involvement in the affairs of the world be informed by the perspective of the Reign of God. How does the gospel give you a vision of how your involvement in society should be?
2. Pharisees and Herodians were not natural allies but a shared dislike of Jesus brought them together in an attempt to discredit him. Perhaps you experience the same opposition in society today when you profess to being a Christian or a Catholic. Jesus did not get into an argument with them but simply professed his belief in the priority of God in his life. What have you found helpful in bearing witness to the fact that you are still a believing Christian or still go to church?
3. Jesus recognises that we can be faced with conflicting claims for attention. He does not tell us how to solve that dilemma, but challenges us to make sure that our allegiance to God takes priority. When have you been faced with a conflict of loyalties? What helped you to get your priorities right?
O God, whose image we bear and whose name we carry, yours is the world and all it contains.
Recall us to our true allegiance, so that above the power and rulers of this world you alone may claim our fullest loyalty and love.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.