Listening to this Gospel we realize that the tension level between Jesus and the religious leaders is rising. The opening verse of today’s Gospel tells us that the Pharisees are plotting “how they might entrap Jesus in speech.” They send their disciples to him, with the Herodians. Notice that the Pharisees do not go themselves. They send their disciples. Here they are trying to protect themselves, putting a distance between themselves and the outcome. Isn’t this one tactic of deceivers? The two groups that come to Jesus are on completely different sides of the tax question. The Pharisees reject or oppose it on religious grounds. The Herodians favor the tax on political grounds. Plotting makes strange bed fellows not just in the Gospel passage but also in our political seasons.
The schemers think they have the perfect trap. Jesus will be damned if he says “yes pay the tax” or “no don’t pay the tax.” His ‘yes’ will discredit him with the Pharisees and also the Zealots who are in favor of armed rebellion against the occupying Romans. His ‘no’ will discredit him with the dominant occupiers the Romans and their supporters the Herodians. It’s the classical, damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.
The words that the people say when they come to Jesus are very flattering. But they are insincere. This is the worst kind of truth, used for a bad purpose. Truth can be used to wound, scandalize or embarrass another.
Jesus recognizes their bad faith. “Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Jesus names them for what they are, hypocrites. He possibly uses some tactics of his own by asking them to produce the coin of the census tax. They produce the coin which has the image of Caesar and the inscription Divuswhich would attribute divinity to him. Some Jews thought that even possessing a denarius was an act of idolatry. That the disciples of the Pharisees could produce a denarius when asked, only added to their hypocrisy and bad faith.
Jesus’ final words are, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow has this comment on God and Caesar:
In the first chapter of Genesis, the Torah teaches that God made Adam, and the human race, in the image of God. What does this mean? The ancient rabbis taught: “Adam the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler who is beyond all rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler [like Caesar, the Roman Emperor who was the ruler in their time and place] mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was…And yet not one of them resembles another.”
The rabbis drew an analogy between the image a human ruler, Caesar, puts upon the coins of the realm, and the image of the Infinite Ruler put upon the many “coins” of humankind. The very diversity of human faces shows the unity and infinity of God, whereas the uniformity of imperial coins makes clear the limitations on the power of an emperor.
The rabbi links this story of the Gospel with the above teaching. He goes on to say: But for two thousand years, Christians have argued over what this answer meant. What is Caesar’s and what is God’s? Does the answer suggest two different spheres of life, one ruled by Caesar and one by God? Does it mean to submit to Caesar’s authority in the material world, while adhering to God in the spiritual world? How do we discern the boundary?
The rabbi then invites us to reread the story with a single line and gesture added: “Whose image is on this coin?” asks Jesus. His questioner answers, “Caesar’s”. Then Jesus puts his arm on the troublemaker’s shoulder and asks, “And whose image is on this coin?”…Now there is deeper meaning to his response, and to the troublemaker’s exit. Jesus has not just avoided the question and evaded the dilemma: He has answered, in a way that is much more radical than if he had said their “pay the tax” or “Don’t pay the tax–a way that is profoundly radical, but gives no obvious reason for arrest.Jesus has not proposed dividing up the turf between the material and the spiritual. He has redefined the issue: “Give your whole self to the One who has imprinted divinity upon you! You a fellow rabbi, know that is the point of this story. All I have done is remind you.”
It is quite easy to see our own present situation of conflicting loyalties in the incident related in today’s Gospel. In our democracy a “Caesar” is not imposed on us, we elect our president. The U.S. Catholic bishops have told us that Catholic values must inform how we vote. Our problem it seems to me is we have very many “one issue” voters. This has contributed to giving us Donald Trump as our president. The U.S. bishops have highlighted seven themes to summarize Catholic Social Teaching: life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community, and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation. (These are contained in their publication Sharing Catholic Social Teaching)
In the midst of a political season which witnessed rampant “gotcha” attitudes and attempts; in the midst of a political reality with more deception than can be quantified; in the midst of a political reality of “strange bedfellows”; in the midst of hypocrisy and economic turmoil; in the midst of flattering words and insincerity that abound we pray for wisdom and guidance as we exam our our consciences and decide how to move forward.
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