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29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (22.10.17)
Jesus is not a name-caller without reason. In this, as in each instance, he is motivated by the Truth. Matthew (22:15-22) provides our Gospel extract for this 29th.Sunday.
The Pharisees were perhaps reeling from the impact of the three parables that Jesus had addressed to them in public revealing the mis-directedness of their faith. In their anger, they concentrated their efforts to entrap Jesus hoping thereby to discredit him in the eyes of the people.
The Pharisees’ depth of determination explains their collaboration, in this instance, with their bitter rivals the Herodians. Whereas the Pharisees claimed to be the supremely orthodox followers of Judaism, the Herodians, who equally were Jews, were the political agents of the Roman puppet-king Herod, king of Galilee, and were, like him, subservient to Rome.
In those days, as now, taxation was loathed. In Palestine the more so because, as an occupied territory, taxation was governed by the Roman Empire. For the Jew, the burning question was: "Is it lawful, under Jewish law, to pay tribute to Rome?"
The Roman Empire exacted three regular taxes. A ground tax; the payment to the government of one tenth of the grain, and one fifth of the oil and wine each produced; this tax was paid partly in kind, and partly in money. Then there was income tax. This amounted to one percent of a person’s income. And finally, a poll tax that had to be paid by every male person from the age of fourteen to the age of sixty-five, and by every female person from the age of twelve to sixty-five. It amounted to one denarius. It was what Jesus called the tribute coin being the equivalent of about 4p. Bear in mind that, in those days, 3p was the usual day's wage for a working-man.
It was the Poll Tax in which the Pharisees and Herodians chose to set their entrapment question. It posed Jesus a very real dilemma. If he said that it was unlawful to pay it, they would promptly report him to the Romans for promoting sedition and his arrest would follow. If Jesus said that it was lawful to pay the tax, he would stand discredited in the eyes of his own people. The Jews resented all the Roman taxes. But they resented the Poll Tax even more for religious reasons. For the Jews, God was their only king; their nation was a theocracy. Therefore, to pay tax to an earthly king was to insult God. The more orthodox of the Jews insisted that any tax paid to a foreign king was religiously offensive to God. The Pharisees and Herodians believed that whichever way Jesus answered their contrived question, he would lay himself open to a serious accusation.
By way of background it may be useful to remember that one of the first acts of each successive Roman Emperor, on gaining power, was to issue his own coinage as evidence of the reality of his authority. This official coinage was held to be the property of the Emperor. In asking his questioners to show him a denarius coin, Jesus was inviting them to condemn themselves.
Under Jewish law no orthodox Jew was allowed to carry anything of an idolatrous nature, including coinage because it bore the image of the Emperor. By providing Jesus with a denarius the orthodox Pharisees and their less orthodox Herodians showed themselves to be ‘unclean’ before the assembled people. It was for this reason, among others, that Jesus addressed them as: “You hypocrites!” They were themselves infringing the very Law with which they hoped to entrap Jesus!
Jesus asked his interrogators whose image the coin, that they had provided, bore? They answered: “Caesar’s”. Jesus then delivered his judgement, still quoted widely today – “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; and to God what belongs to God."
His interrogators’ hypocrisy had been defeated by The Truth speaking truth. Undiluted truth is the answer that cannot be gainsaid. Matthew tells us that on this occasion Jesus’ questioners were silenced and surprised and: “they left him alone and went away”. Truth is timeless and never goes out of date though it is always under devious attack from Satan and many fall victim to falsehood he confects.
Christians hold a double citizenship. They are citizens of the country of their domicile. This citizenship places them under a debt of obligation to act responsibly; failure to be upright earthly citizens is also a failure in Christian duty to God as well as to fellow citizens.
Christians are also ‘citizens’ of heaven. There are matters of religion and principle when the Christian’s responsibility to God takes precedence over their civil citizenship. It may well be that the two citizenships will never clash; they do not need to.
A Christian convinced that a particular principle is the will of God must uphold it even at the cost of her or his life. Equally, if a Christian is convinced that a civil law is against the will of God, they must resist it in all lawful ways and take no part in it. Where the boundaries between the two duties lie, Jesus does not say. That is for a person’s own informed conscience to test.
A Christian has the obligation to inform his/her conscience with a continuous updating that involves the grace of the Holy Spirit received through the Sacraments, an effective appreciation of the legitimate and authoritative teaching of The Church and the person’s own daily prayer. An informed conscience is a living entity. Unless it is continuously and correctly informed it is unreliable, subject to the infiltration of evil and therefore less fit for purpose that it should be.
The truth that Jesus lays down in this incident is how to determine to be, at one and the same time, a faithful citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven and a true citizen of the country of one’s domicile. As St. Peter said, "Fear God. Honour the emperor", God comes first. ( 1 Peter 2:17 ).