October 16, 2005 - Pentecost +22
15 The Pharisees went out and took counsel on how they could trap Jesus with his own words. 16 They then sent their disciples with the members of Herod's party for this purpose.
They said to Jesus, "Master, we know that you are an honest man and truly teach God's way; you are not influenced by others nor are you afraid of anyone. 17 Tell us, then, what you think: is it against the Law to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
18 But Jesus understood their evil intent, and said to them, "Hypocrites! Why are you testing me? 19 Show me the coin with which you pay the taxes."
They showed him a denarius, 20 and Jesus said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose name?" 21 They answered, "Caesar’s." Then Jesus replied, "Therefore, return to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
22 Astonished by his answer, they left him and went away.
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• 15. See the commentary in Mk 12:13.
The trap is as follows: they ask about the tax that the Jews are obliged to pay to Caesar, emperor of Rome, for the Jews have been colonized by the Romans and are under their rule.
The Pharisees and partisans of Herod, who are political enemies, join together. The Pharisees oppose Roman domination; the partisans of Herod, on the other hand, accept it. If Jesus says they are to pay, the Pharisees will discredit him before the people. If he says no, the partisans of Herod will have him arrested by the Romans.
Jesus does not condemn Roman imperialism, nor does he justify it. Is it because the problems of justice and peace are not “spiritual things” and do not concern him?
These problems, of course, are important and biblical history reveals that God wants liberty for every person and for nations the possibility to develop culture and national life: that is enough to justify the political commitment of Christians.
But Jesus also knows that people's true liberation goes beyond partisan quarrels and rivalries. In his time the Jewish people were torn apart and divided into irreconcilable factions; these were to be one of the causes of the national disaster during the great revolt of A.D. 66-71. Jesus will invite his adversaries to give political life its true place and not to confuse faith and religious fanaticism.
For the Pharisees, to pay taxes to Caesar, a foreign ruler and pagan, was like denying God, the true Lord of Israel. They identified the Jewish National Party with the cause of God. This carried grave consequences, since they thought that to serve God they must crush those of the opposition party. Since faith asks of us total obedience, people who confuse political militancy with faith begin to justify, little by little, everything their party does, even its lies and crimes.
The Caesar of Rome was not God, although he pretended to be. He had imposed his authority on them and the use of Roman coins, but could not demand the obedience of conscience that was due only to God. Neither was he "the enemy of God," as the Pharisees thought, and to serve the kingdom of God it was not necessary to refuse him taxes and civil obedience.
What is Caesar's can be understood: "what belongs to Caesar." Rather it means: "the kind of things which fall under his rule." With his answer "to Caesar what belongs to him, to God…" Jesus separates religion and politics in cultures -- Jewish and Roman alike -- where politics always looked for religious justification. From now on, religion should not be manipulated for political purposes, nor should religion confuse its political opponents with the enemies of the Kingdom.
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1. To try to trap another is to be a hypocrite. It shows us trying to put on the face of a kindly inquirer, while underneath lurks a devourer of good names. No matter where a trap is set or how sophisticated and well-deserved it may be, it always says much more about the one doing the trapping than the one being trapped.
2. In today's world, those who have lost track of the common good are revealed as hypocrites through their every attempt to accumulate more. Whether it is reduction of taxes for the rich or individual charity in place of common responsibilities, the antidote is a broader vision. The poet who wrote the hymn "Wounded World that Cries for Healing has their finger on the false questions about use of money when they write, "Through our nation's spent frustration, through the corridors of stress --- may there move a kindlier wisdom all may feel, and all may bless --- tax and tithe are for a purpose shared to shield the poor and weak --- past the symptoms of our sickness let the voice of justice speak."
3. It is this kindlier wisdom that reveals the conspiracy between church and state to shield us from the spiritual disciplines of justice and peace. The conspiracy mistakes money for morals. Little by little we will do anything for money and the power it brings. Both church and state conspire together to institute total obedience to their means of control, body and soul.
May we astonish ourselves in thundering forth, "Hypocrite!" and be willing to be astonished at the truth when finding it thundered back at ourselves. We need to model both corrective words and corrective actions that build community.
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