Year A: Twenty-Ninth Sunday Ordinary Time

Paying Taxes to the Emperor

Matthew 22: 15-21

Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech.They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription? They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What could belong to us that does not already belong to God?
  2. In what ways have you given to God what belongs to God? In what ways have you failed to give to God what belongs to God?
  3. Who are the “Caesars” that we attach ourselves to and do we sometimes give to them what we should give to God?
  4. Where do you struggle most in balancing priorities of who/what has a rightful claim on your time and devotion?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

In the past few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus narrate parables that called friends and enemies to conversion. That’s another way of saying that he told parables that angered his opposition. Today’s Gospel opens with the explanation that Jesus’ enemies were forging new alliances in their campaign to undo him. This is the first time we hear about the Herodians — a group that doesn’t need any more description than their name indicates; they aligned themselves with the brutal ruler, Herod Antipas. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians, a very odd coalition, plan a verbal trap for Jesus.

The oil of insincerity oozes through the scene as they open their ambush with praise for Jesus as a truthful teacher who doesn’t pander to anyone. (This is not the only time that Jesus is in the awkward position of having hypocrites or demons praise him for who he really is.) The loquacious speakers finally get to their point and ask about the legitimacy of collaborating with the Romans by paying taxes. Lest anyone wonder what Jesus really thought about his questioners and their creative dilemma, he immediately addresses them as hypocrites, and makes it clear to everyone listening that their intent is only to test him. They have no interest in looking for an answer and no personal investment in the question.

Disingenuous as they may be, their question is legitimate. If Jesus tells people to refuse to pay taxes, he’s siding with rebels and perhaps calling down more wrath than the case warrants. On the other hand, paying taxes could be read as a sign of accepting and thereby legitimizing the rule of the pagan Romans. This is probably the first description of a church/state conflict in Christian history.

When Jesus asks to see a coin, the first thing we notice is that his questioners have Roman money, thereby collaborating with the system at least to the extent that they carry something that bears the sort of graven image forbidden by strict Jews. The injunction against images was a stringent application of the commandment in Exodus: “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth” (20:4). While the application of that commandment forbad any sort of depiction of human beings or creatures, its intent was to forbid idolatry, the worship of or consecration to any person, creature or thing other than God.

When Jesus asked whose image was on the coin, the group’s ability to produce one pointed out that they carried Roman money that featured an image of Caesar, the inscription on which called Caesar Augustus a divinity. Jesus didn’t comment on the coin’s idolatrous implications but neutralized the dichotomy, rising above it with a typically enigmatic response.

While our translation says “repay” to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, others say “give” or “render.” Whichever translation one uses, the answer is a riddle. The first part is fairly simple: With some prayer and discernment, we can determine what belongs to Caesar. There may be some debate about government’s legitimate rights, but at some point, there will be a limit to what the government can demand of citizens. We can be genuinely dedicated to the nation and the common good without falling into the idolatry of blind obedience. But when it comes to giving to God what belongs to God, what falls outside of that category?

Balancing God and Caesar

By Sr. Mary McGlone

The money of the United States bears the official national motto: “In God We Trust.” It’s a curious and sometimes contentious part of our history. Apparently, the motto first appeared on coins during the Civil War, a not so subtle assertion that God was on the side of the Union. During the height of the Cold War, when the atheistic Soviet Union was our most frightening enemy, Congress passed laws making the phrase the official motto of the United States and ordering that it should be printed on all U.S. paper currency.

When the motto and its exhibition have been challenged in court, the decisions have ruled that it does not favor the establishment of religion and therefore is not unconstitutional. A 2004 Court of Appeals ruling said that references to God on money or in the Pledge of Allegiance “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” On the other extreme, President Teddy Roosevelt called references to God on coins sacrilegious. God and country, church and state, the debate has confounded Christians since the time of Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, we see the start of a strange alliance between Pharisees and Herodians, groups whose only commonality seemed to be their opposition to Jesus. In one sense, they might be taken as the representatives of strict religion and the folks who could drop all scruples and self-servingly support the local dynasty. When this odd combo of church and state factions questioned Jesus about the legitimacy of paying taxes, they thought they had come up with the perfect dilemma. If Jesus said, “pay,” he implicitly acknowledged the legitimacy of the Roman occupation, pagan rule over God’s people. On the other hand, those people remembered that less than 30 years before this happened, a man called Judas the Galilean had been executed for starting a revolution based on refusing to pay taxes. His sons met the same fate in the year 47 CE. Tax resistance was dangerous in those days.

Jesus was never one to be bested in political theater. Just when they thought they had him on the hook, he reeled them in. It was time for show and tell. He asked for a coin. Whose picture was on it? The coin they carried displayed not only an image of Tiberius Caesar but also a written declaration that he was the son of the divine Augustus. The other side of the coin had the words pontifex maximus declaring that Caesar was the most-high priest. The very sight of such a coin would rankle strongly religious or nationalistic Jews. For the Gospel writers, the memory of the coin was the height of irony.

Then Jesus responded to their interrogation. When they admitted that the coin bore an image of Caesar, he handed them a riddle: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Jesus’ response would satisfy no purist. The righteous religious would see him as promoting capitulation to the pagans. The Herodians, the “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em” crowd, would realize they had just been given a very tenuous pass. The underlying question is what could belong to Caesar that does not already belong to God? Jesus left it to each age to discern how to interpret that for their own times.

The Gospel gives us Jesus’ response to groups that were out to trap him. What about folks who are sincere in wondering when supporting Caesar stops being legitimate? When must we be conscientious objectors? There are a few details in the story that offer clues to the riddle. First of all, any practicing Jew who heard Jesus say something about what belongs to God would have heard echoes of prayers like Psalm 24 which begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.”

The second hint comes through the part of the story that Jesus didn’t emphasize. The coin the questioners were carrying was blasphemous to religious Jews. It symbolized all the institutions that tend to divinize themselves as the ultimate in importance or authority. The inscription on the coin could be compared to the statement, “My country, right or wrong,” or any other declaration of absolute allegiance to anything on the Earth. That inscription and attitude cross the line giving to Caesar what belongs to God. Seen in that light, an answer to the riddle begins to appear. Caesar, the common good, society, can all make legitimate claims on us. We are responsible to create societies which serve the good of all. That’s what we owe to Caesar.

If the God in whom we trust is the God of Jesus, what we owe to God is a blank check.