Year A – October 18, 2020
On the surface, today’s Gospel appears to be a political challenge. A deeper look reveals something quite different — and far more important.
In asking Jesus about taxes, His rivals challenge him on both a religious and a political level. (In this context, “the law” to which they refer is religious rather than secular.) The Roman Empire’s rule of Israel was not only unwelcome but actively (and at times violently) resented by the people of Israel. Taxes and their collection were viewed as unclean — supporting an Empire which oppressed the people’s rights to live and worship in accordance with the Torah. Those who supported Roman rule — particularly tax collectors and politicians — were shunned. And yet, as much as the community wanted to deny the power of Roman through all possible means, their presence and their laws were everyday realities. Though the people did not want to respect their overlords, they were forced to do so through payment of taxes. If they refused, the weight of that brutal empire fell on them and everyone they loved. Even the suggestion others shouldn’t pay their taxes led to terrible consequences. Jesus, as a publicly known and respected teacher, would have faced serious reprisals for suggesting as much.
While the syntax Jesus’ challengers use attempts to limit Him to a simple “yes” or “no” answer, He chooses to ignore those limits. Those parameters were a transparently designed political trap, intended to force Jesus to take sides. A “yes” would show him a supporter of the oppressive, evil empire but an apostate to the faith. A “no” would have set him at dangerous odds with that empire.
Instead, Jesus uses their challenge to send their thinking — and ours — in a different direction. He points out the obvious — cesar’s head imprinted on the coin, as was common political and nationalistic propaganda in that era as it is in ours. Jesus tells them to “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words: Cesar can have his coin back. In the bigger picture, it’s not that important. The coin doesn’t matter to God. What matters to God — and what should matter to you — is loving God, and in turn giving that Divine Love to others.
Jesus called his challengers to reflect on their own priorities. This lifelong challenge to our journey of faith is relevant to us, too — and perhaps even more so, considering the many demands of modern life. Technology can easily draw our energy and attention away from God and away from the people around us. Even when we do pay attention, we sometimes fail to treat the people around us as the beloved children of God they are. Recently, our civic and political discourse has become particularly contentious. A trend I find deeply troubling is calling our opponents “stupid” — either through implication or outright name calling. Both sides do it. Many, both ordinary people and their leaders, engage their opponents with disrespect at best and threats of violence at worst. Rather than applaud those among us who responsibly give their best effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus to the most vulnerable among us through faithful mask usage, they are criticized as being fearful and therefore weak.
Are our priorities in order?
What is God calling us to do?
Is love our priority?
If not, How are we being called to reprioritize?
And will we pay attention long enough to discern that call?