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Sunday 18 October 2020

Proper claims and responsibilities

Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96/95:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22


By Jonathan Brandon

Parish Priest, St Vincent de Paul, Altrincham

Context: Sunday Mass congregation of 150 adults of different ages, mainly from professional backgrounds

Aim: to draw out what Jesus intends by ‘Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.’

‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.’ These words of the Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara remind us that Christians, particularly Christian leaders are often charged with ‘meddling in politics’ when they speak out against sin and injustice. At first glance the Lord Jesus’ words in the Gospel might seem to suggest that there should be a strict separation between the world of politics and the world of faith. ‘Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.’

At this time the Holy Land was occupied by the Roman Empire and the occupying power imposed an additional economic burden on an already impoverished people. But more than this the taxation reminded the people that the land promised by God to their ancestors was not free but living under the oppression of a foreign power. It is for this reason that elsewhere in the Gospels tax-collectors are regarded with such hatred - they are collaborating with the oppression of their own people and are corrupt by applying their own surcharges on an already burdensome duty.

The Herodians and the Pharisees mentioned in the Gospel today are not natural allies. The Pharisees are devout religious men who are opposed to Roman rule whereas the Herodians are supporters of the Herodian dynasty content to work with the Gentile power of Rome. What unites them is their determination to bring an end to Jesus and his ministry. Both have an investment in Jesus’ answer. If Jesus supports the payment of the tax to Caesar he can be painted by the Pharisees as sympathetic to Roman rule. No wonder he is a friend of sinners and tax-collectors we can hear the Pharisees say. Whereas if he encourages them not to pay their taxes to Caesar the Herodians can paint him as a tax rebel and a troublemaker to be reported to the Roman authorities and dealt with accordingly. There is an awful symmetry to their cynical alliance both parties will see the end of Jesus but for different reasons. But Jesus’ wisdom is greater than the vilest of human cynicism.

By asking the Pharisees to produce the coin that they themselves use to pay the tax Jesus shows they may not like the Roman occupation but they, like everyone else, pay their taxes. What is more the coins that they use to pay their taxes bear the image of the Roman emperor and his claim to be the son of the Divine Augustus and High Priest. The image on the coin that the Pharisees carry, and the titles inscribed on them, could not be more offensive to devout Jews. Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

But as so often in the Gospels Jesus not only escapes the trap but uses the trap to teach something positive about what it means to be his disciple. By saying ‘Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God’ Jesus makes it clear to us as Christians that it is perfectly possible for us to fulfil our duties to God and the secular authorities so far as the law is not in conflict with the commandments of God. If this is the case of a brutal imperialistic power such as Rome, how much more is this case in a modern democratic society in which we Christians have the possibility and responsibility of making our contribution to the common good.

There is even more to this encounter. If the Roman coin belongs to Caesar and must be given back to him, what belongs to God? Jesus implicitly puts the Roman emperor in his place and subordinates the claims of Caesar to the claims of God. If we are in any doubt about this the reading from the prophet Isaiah reminds us that it is the Lord God who called Cyrus, a foreign King, to exercise power in his name yet God remains the Lord unrivalled. And the Psalm that we pray in response to the word we have heard, and all the entire Psalter, point out we are to proclaim to the nations that God is King and he will judge the peoples in fairness.

The Roman coin bore the image of the Roman Emperor and so belonged to him, but we all are made in the image of God. We bear his image and so belong to him. This is the unique dignity and worth of every human person. Anything that obscures this image, anything that degrades or lessens the respect due to every human life must engage our concern as Christian disciples. So when we give food to the hungry and when we ask why the hungry have no food we are not meddling in politics but living our Christian vocation to show our faith in action, to work for love and persevere through hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

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