Readings: Is 45:1,4-6; 1 Thess 1:1-5; Mt 22:15-21
Repaying to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God is the punch line that sums up the message of this Sunday. Taxation was controversial at the time of Jesus because the ruling government was a Roman colonial invader. Moreover, taxes had to be paid with an imperial denarius. That coin had an image of Tiberius Caesar on one side, and on the other side there was an image of the female goddess of Rome. Such images were considered idolatry according to Jewish Law. Even more sensitive were the words under Caesar’s image, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.” Any debate on taxation was therefore delicate as it could be even today. The readings of this Sunday touch on the delicate relationship between Church and state; between Christian commitment to God and loyalty to one’s country. A good example of this is what we hear in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. The context is that the Jews are in exile in Babylon. The Lord then speaks through Isaiah to Cyrus, King of Persia (modern Iran), who conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. The King then allowed the Jews to return to their homeland in 537 B.C. He also gave state money from the royal treasury for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews quickly hailed King Cyrus II as the “anointed” in terms of being used by God to conquer the Babylonians. The first reading therefore reveals that at times, God may even use civil initiative to accomplish his own purpose. Isaiah uses the example of King Cyrus to illustrate this point. Isaiah shows that the king was ultimately subject to the hand of God in delivering Israel from the bondage of exile in Babylon, and restoring them to their homeland.
In the Gospel, Jesus is in the Temple. The Pharisees have plotted to trick him into saying something that would be treason against the Romans. So they send some spies, the Herodians, who had maintained loyalty to king Herod, and therefore supported the payment of taxes to the Roman Emperor. The question is carefully crafted to solicit a positive or negative answer. Jesus knows the malice and hypocrisy of his questioners. In fact they are carrying coins bearing Caesar’s name and image. Jesus’ reply leads his opponents to entrap themselves. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s”, they replied. Then comes Jesus’ punch line. “Then, repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” The response of Jesus has many implications for the Church today. Jesus does not commit himself to either side. Similarly the Church must never take sides, but has the stewardship role of guiding the faithful through formation, to know their rights, in order to fulfill their civic duties as informed loyal citizens, who are committed to God alone. So what message do we take home this Sunday? 1) Jesus does not commit himself to either side of the debate, for he is committed only to the Father. Similarly, we too his disciples and stewards are committed to God alone. 2) As Christians we must be truthful and honest in all matters of civil life. 3) The readings challenge us to be good stewards by giving to God what belongs to God because all our being and all we have is from God.
©2017 John S. Mbinda