Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (2014)
By Fr. Leroy Clementich, CSC
I am quite sure that when many church-going folks listen to the gospel for this 29th Sunday in Ordinary time, they will recall the old, well-rehearsed, phrase: “The more things change the more they seem to remain the same.” What they will obviously be thinking about will be politics and taxes. Of all the human activities that bring frustration to people’s lives, these two must stand near first place. Regarding taxes in particular, most law-abiding citizens do not object to them as such. It is rather their conviction that the taxes are sometimes assessed unfairly and often bring little return to their own communities. All that may be partly fact and partly fiction. Nonetheless, citizens are reluctant to say that taxes, even though necessary are a complete blessing. Most folks bear them reluctantly.
In reading the gospel for this Sunday we find that the situation was little different in the Palestine of Jesus’ day; indeed the manner in which the tax was assessed and enforced was doubtless more cruel than the process is today. Mary McGlone, in a recent commentary on the passage we are considering points out that the “tax in question was imposed on every adult man, woman and slave in Judea and was to be paid in the Roman coin (the Denarius.)” The Denarius amounted to one-day’s wages.
Many Israeli Nationalists resisted the tax to the point of armed rebellions, the last of which brought on the destruction of the temple by the Roman armies.
Sister McGlone goes on to point out that the Denarius was particularly offensive to Jewish people because it had inscribed upon it an image of the Roman emperor that called him the son of God. We can well imagine therefore the reluctance of Jewish people even to carry the Denarius in the pockets of their robes.
It is at this point in the gospel passage that the issue of paying the tax comes into focus. The patriotic scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus with a question: “Is it appropriate for Jewish people to pay the tax or not?” If Jesus responded “yes,” he would incur the wrath of many loyal Jewish citizens. If said, “no, don’t pay it,” he could be reported to the Roman authorities and be jailed. Hence, they thought they had Jesus in a bind. All this was an effort to bring Jesus and his message into ill repute. They really did not care which way Jesus responded; they just wanted to embarrass him in public.
Of course, most Christians know from reading the gospels that Jesus was a shrewd debater. So, he responded by asking them to show him a Denarius. Where was the coin found? Not on the street in front of them but in their very pockets. “Got’cha,” Jesus said. “If you believe in God, as all religious Jews do, how come you are carrying that hated coin around in your pocket?” No answer. So, Jesus delivered the fatal blow: “Give to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” In other words, when Jesus’ attackers had to admit that they were carrying around an image of Caesar, he told them to return the coin to the one to whom it obviously belonged.
End of conversation? Well, yes for the moment, but yet the question has been tossed around for centuries: What actually belongs to Caesar (government) and what belongs to God?
One would think that this question might have been settled long ago, but it still occasionally pops up in cocktail conversations around our dear country around April 15, tax day.
An intelligent, devoted Christian and a loyal citizen, of course, should not imagine that choosing one the other option will put him/her in a corner. We do not live in two separate worlds, secular and sacred. We live in one world, God’s world, where both faith and the dollar play a rightful place in our lives. We cannot live without depending on both for a complete civil and religious life.
Fortunately most Christians have no problem carrying around a five dollar bill with the image of Abraham Lincoln thereupon, nor the American dime with president Franklin Roosevelt’s’ image thereupon. In fact, both of those pieces of money often find their way into the collection basket on Sunday. The implication here is that our fidelity is not to one or the other but to the God who has created all things and keeps them in good order.
Now, I do not know whether any of what I have said will bring any pleasure to our dear citizens, when, on April 15th they must write a check in favor of our country’s welfare but it may well make the burden more bearable. Interestingly, I say this as a person who does not make enough money to pay taxes. Oh well…
The scriptures: Isaiah 41 1, 4-6 • 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b • Matthew 22: 15-21
USCCB Bible Daily Readings: Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time