Scripture Readings: Prophet Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; First Thessalonians 1:1-5a; Gospel According to Matthew 22:15-22
In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus is recognized as a teacher and is asked to give an official opinion on a controversial matter regarding the “poll-tax” as it was called, something everyone was obliged to pay the Roman occupying forces, using Roman coinage, the denarius. This small silver coin bore the image of the hated Roman Emperor, with the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.”
Among the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, those who belonged to the Zealot party regarded the poll-tax as something abhorrent and therefore religious obligation demanded they refuse to pay the tax. Members of the Jewish Herodian party supported the Roman administration in the land and willingly paid the tax. The party of the Pharisees opposed the tax in principle, but paid it, so as to secure some religious freedom.
Because of the complexity of the question about the poll-tax, often debated among the Jewish teachers, some Pharisee and Herodian sympathizers turned to Jesus for his opinion on the matter. We are told in the Gospel that the Pharisees were actually plotting how they could trap Jesus, especially if he gave an unacceptable answer. Because the opinions about the tax were of such a wide range, whatever Jesus might say could and probably would be used against him.
The one representing the wider audience opens his question by saying, “Teacher, we know you are a truthful man and teach God’s ways sincerely.” It is a form of flattery, of course, but the sincerity of the statement is certainly questionable. True enough, though, Jesus is an exemplary teacher, the Son of God, teaching God’s Law with fidelity and not bothered in his teaching by human respect or partiality.
Asked for his official view on the poll-tax question, Jesus recognizes the bad faith of those addressing him, even calling them hypocrites. Their attempt is to lay a trap for Jesus, but rather than giving an extended discourse on the matter of the tax, Jesus simply requests to be shown the small denarius coin used for the tax. “Whose head is on this coin, and whose inscription?” Jesus asks, basically saying, “To whom does this coin belong?” The answer is simple; the coin belongs to the Roman Emperor. Jesus concludes the matter by stating plainly, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.”
In his reply to his questioners, Jesus is not intending to give a teaching on politics. On the other hand, he does not give his definitive approval or disapproval about the matter. What seems to be emphasized in Jesus’ mind, is the last part of his statement; namely, Give to God what is God’s. Insincere and hypocritical attitudes should not be a part of those set on the Kingdom of God, whereas striving to produce good fruit by one’s thoughts, words and deeds are the most important matters in life. Lives of sincere love and good zeal, putting others first and serving rather that seeking to be served are the essence of our short pilgrimage on earth.
Expressed another way, being lost in a life of comparison, for example, by carefully calculating when I last had this or that particular assignment in community or family and asking “why must I do it if Brother X or Sister Y hasn’t yet done it?” This kind of living will get us nowhere, of course, and is far from what Jesus teaches and for which he laid down his life.
In the Old Testament reading for Mass this Sunday, God’s exiled people are liberated from oppression and allowed to return to their homeland. It is an act ultimately attributed to God, who ordains the whole course of history, in His own way and time.
For the Christian believer, Jesus is the final liberator of all people by undergoing his Passion, Death and Resurrection, being “the firstborn from the dead,” as Saint Paul refers to Jesus in Colossians 1:18. This means we can ultimately be freed from the oppression of sin and death through adherence to the God who is capable of redeeming us. As Saint John so beautifully says in his Gospel account: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
I recount a phrase from the Venerable Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who lived from 1897 to 1980. Day said: “The less you have of Caesar’s, the less you have to render to Caesar.” Put another way: make your priority God and the Kingdom and you will more likely be on the right track!