The question about paying taxes
15 Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Hero′di-ans, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In this Sunday’s gospel, two important groups in the society in which Jesus lived, the Pharisees and the Herodians, approach him with a question to challenge him and to be able to discredit him before the people or to accuse him before the authorities.
The Pharisees were religious men, with varying political positions, who didn’t care about the nature of the regime as long as it didn’t pose obstacles to religion. The Herodians, on the other hand, were a political group fighting for the restoration of the power of Herod’s family. Both groups, so different from each other, questioned Jesus about whether or not to pay the tribute tax to Caesar, the emperor of Rome, the imperial power to which the small province of Judea was subject.
The question they ask Jesus is very clear and challenging: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17). This cunning question was intended to lead Jesus into a trap, whether he was opposed to paying the tribute tax or whether he accepted it.
If Jesus had opposed paying the tax, he would have placed himself in a position of open confrontation with the empire, in the line of the most radical groups of the time that called for tax protests, social revolt, and even armed revolution, with which he could have been accused of rebellion against Rome.
If Jesus had accepted the payment of the tribute, he would have shown himself to be a sympathizer of Rome, accepting the divine condition of the Roman Emperor, in open opposition to the religion of Israel that worshiped the Lord as the only God, remaining discredited before the poorest people who were victims of an oppressive system of taxation.
Jesus frees himself from the insidious trap that has been set for him and provides an answer that is placed above the ideological and political plane of the Pharisees and Herodians. He doesn’t get entangled in fiscal and political discussions, but places himself on the level of ethics and high values.
In the first place, he employs a teaching strategy in the style of the ancient prophets, asking those who posed the question to show him a denarius, which was the currency of the tribute. When they show him the coin, Jesus asks them: “Whose image and inscription is this?” to which they reply: “Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:20). In fact, the coin was inscribed with the bust of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, adorned with the crown of divinity and surrounded by the inscription Tiberius Caesar, Divi Augusti Filius Augustus: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” It was a coin minted with clear political and religious symbols expressing not only the sovereignty but also the divinity of the emperor.
After showing them the coin Jesus says to his questioners: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21). Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer to the question they asked him about whether or not to pay the tribute. He’s made it clear that the currency belongs to Caesar and that whoever accepts his imperial system should pay him what he has the right to demand: the tax payment. This is what “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” means.
“What Jesus wants to make clear is that one should never give to Caesar that which belongs to God.” Bishop @silviojbaez #GodNotCaesarTweet
However, Jesus, who doesn’t live in the service of the emperor of Rome but of the Kingdom of God, adds something that no one has asked him: but give “to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus wants to make it clear that above Caesar there is a higher order, namely God, to whom one must give what belongs to him alone, that is, everything that exists. As Psalm 24 says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”
The earth, history, peoples, every human being and life belong to the Lord. At most, Caesar owns his unjust money and can demand payment of the tribute. Beyond the discussion of tax policy, what Jesus wants to make clear is that one should never give to Caesar that which belongs to God.
“Render unto to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” This famous phrase of Jesus has been misinterpreted and frequently used to establish a clear boundary between the political and the religious, and also to disqualify any attempt to question or criticize politics and the State from the point of view of faith.
There is no lack of those who, citing this phrase, demand that the Church not get involved in politics, interpreting the words of Jesus as a kind of Gospel version of the saying “mind your own business”: politicians busy in public life (at their leisure), and the Church minding her parishes and sacristies. Jesus’ statement does not mean that on the one hand, politics is concerned with social organization, justice, the economy, fiscal policies, and public decisions; and on the other hand, religion should be dedicated exclusively to people’s intimate lives, to worship, and to each person’s individual relationship with God.
God and Caesar do not share between themselves the obedience and submission of human beings. Jesus doesn’t picture God and Caesar as two powers that are on the same level, dividing the people’s obedience among themselves.
The most novel part of Jesus’ statement is in the second half: give “to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus wants to make it clear that the coin with the image of the emperor belongs to Caesar, but that human beings, who are made in the image of God as stated in the book of Genesis (Genesis 1:26), belong to Him alone, and only to Him do we owe worship, obedience, and absolute trust. God is on another plane that is quite different from that of the Roman Emperor.
God is the Lord of history and the Lord of every human being, created in His image. The emperor is not God, and never will be, because God is mercy, justice, truth, and love—values that are absent in any empire.
“What Jesus teaches is that no political power, no government, no ‘Caesar’ of this world can pretend to be god and lord of human beings.” Bishop @silviojbaez #GodNotCaesarTweet
No Caesar of this world, neither the pharaohs of the past nor the dictators of today, can demand that which belongs to God.
We cannot tolerate anyone becoming the master of our consciences or taking away our freedom. No one can impose his will on the people in a despotic way, nor violently subdue them in order to remain in power while enjoying privileges that are sometimes absurd, enriching themselves without measure. In a legitimately constituted system, Christians must live as honest and responsible citizens, fulfilling their social and political duties and collaborating for the common good of society.
However, when a regime places itself above the law, tramples on human rights, manipulates justice, and represses people with violence, we cannot remain passive and resigned. If we allow our dignity to be taken away, our conscience to be controlled, and our freedom to be destroyed, we would not only be passively resigning ourselves to humiliating domination, but we also would be contradicting what Jesus teaches us today: we must give to God alone that which belongs to God.
No Caesar is God; no human power is divine. That is why political power must be “de-divinized” through active participation in the life of society:
- denouncing and condemning all acts of corruption in the structures of the State,
- establishing mechanisms for the control of power,
- promoting public debate within a healthy and respectful pluralism,
- defending and demanding respect for all freedoms of its citizens, and
- demanding that those in power should be held accountable to their citizens.
“Jesus’ words today are a proclamation of freedom. We human beings do not belong to any earthly power.” Bishop @silviojbaez #GodNotCaesarTweet
Jesus’ words today are a proclamation of freedom. We human beings do not belong to any earthly power, nor can people resign themselves to living in submission to any ideology or power structure. “Let us give to God the things that are God’s.”
Let us nourish in ourselves a holy interior rebellion to adore and serve God alone, interpreting and shedding light on history with the light that comes from him, living fully our commitment in history, and responding with evangelical coherence to the challenges of each day.
Bishop Silvio José Báez, O.C.D.
Auxiliary Bishop of Managua
Homily, 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time
18 October 2020, St. Agatha Church, Miami
Translation from the Spanish text is the blogger’s own work product and may not be reproduced without permission.