Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 22, 2017
In order to get a sense of what is going on in today’s Gospel, think about what’s going on in our country today.
For example, when it was announced that Andrew Jackson’s portrait would no longer appear on the face of the $20 bill and would be replaced with a picture of Harriet Tubman, the news was celebrated as a social victory by some Americans. Others were infuriated, declaring that they would not use the bill once minted. People’s reactions were motivated by a number of varied beliefs and opinions which fueled emotions. The point is that the image on the $20 bill became one of the battles in the multi-front cultural war that is raging in and dividing our nation today.
The sociopolitical climate of Judea during Jesus’s time was very similar. There were many factions within the Jewish people as they were struggling to maintain a national identity while occupied by Rome, which had forcibly incorporated the Promised Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem into the Empire. In today’s Gospel, it’s almost surprising that two factions that would be expected to be on opposite sides of an issue appear to have joined together in a conspiracy against Jesus. This is telling of how Jesus was in the eye of the cultural and political storm.
Apparently, neither the religious Pharisees nor the royal Herodians had the nerve to do the job themselves. They primed in advance underlings who, today, we would call “pundits,” sent to engage The Lord in a discussion when they were not truly interested in discovering what was right and true and good. What they were looking for was hard evidence to use against Jesus. Taxation being a hot button issue, they chose to put Him on the spot, asking whether a faithful Jew should give financial support to Rome.
It’s key to an understanding of this passage, however, to know that more offensive to religious Jews than the obligation to pay taxes was the only acceptable means of doing so. The tax bill could only be paid with Roman coinage. An image of Caesar, who was considered a god by the Romans, was on one side of the coin, and the image of another pagan god was on the flipside. For a religious Jew, there were not two sides to the same coin. Both sides contained a pagan image which was contrary to the Hebraic Law. So then, just as some Americans would prefer to forego including $20 bills in their folding money if the currency had a picture of Harriet Tubman, Jewish people felt that it would be sinful for them to touch these pagan images…which they would have to do in order to pay the tax. This was not just a matter of politics; this was about blasphemy.
So, the well-trained pundits felt that they had Jesus painted into a corner with their question about taxes. If He were to suggest that it was unlawful to pay taxes with the offensive coinage, He would be in trouble with Rome. Had He suggested that taxes are an obligation citizens cannot avoid, He would have been encouraging people to break religious law by using the pagan coin, leaving Him open to charges of blasphemy.
Ironically, the hard evidence of blasphemy was in the pockets of the people looking to accuse Jesus. The Lord asked THEM to produce the coin…and THEY DID. The accusers were guilty of the very offense they were trying to accuse Jesus of.
Of course, we know something they were ignorant about. These “pundits” and the people who sent them were so blinded by the cultural storm that was raging in their country that they did not recognize The Messiah. A far more grievous offense against God than possession of the forbidden, two-faced coin was the two faces with which they stood before the Son of God. Of course, Jesus saw right through the false sincerity with which they asked the trick question.
The most obvious lesson to be learned from this encounter is the reality that people of faith need to live in this world and deal with things such as taxes, civil laws and authorities, politics, and cultural conflicts. God understands this.
But at the same time, Christians are called to strive to live ABOVE the material world. Even as we deal with the issues of our day and age, our focus should always be to the future when the Kingdom of God has arrived in its fullness.
That is the point of the second part of Jesus’s masterful response to the trick question. And so, we turn to our Second Reading where St. Paul tells us just what it is that is due and owing to God…work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So how does a good Christian enter into the multi-front cultural war that is raging in our nation today? We must stay faithful to God’s will and God’s way set forth in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our motivation for all we say and do must be love…not victory…but love. And, no matter how desperate things become, we should never lose hope that, at the appointed time, Jesus will return in all of His glory…and the cultural wars of the ages will come to an end…and ALL WILL BE ALL!
In other words, far more important than the image on our coins is the face we show to the world. When people see faith, hope, and love on our faces…they see Christ…and only in Christ will there be peace!