On the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-21
29th Sunday of the Year
This Sunday’s Gospel contains the famous phrase “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”. This was Jesus’ reply to a very tricky question. Either answer to the question, “Shall we pay Tax to Caesar, or not?” could place Jesus in difficulty.
The question was probably one that the Pharisees had discussed among themselves. The Jews were between a rock and a hard place. They did not want to pay the tax, but if they refused the Romans would persecute them. The political climate was highly charged and the Jews hated their Roman occupiers. The Romans were wary of a constant threat of revolt. Eventually forty years later, the occupiers finally got tired of the rebellious province and banished the Jews from Jerusalem.
If Jesus said: “Yes” then they could say to the people that Jesus supported the Roman overlords and this would help make Him unpopular. Even the coin used to pay the Tax was offensive to the Jews. The inscription was blasphemous as it called the emperor divine, and the Jews considered the image idolatrous. The Pharisees would then have succeeded in their plot to stop the people listening to Jesus.
The Pharisees, however, were being very clever in their choice to send the Herodians, who supported paying tribute to Caesar anyway, to question Jesus. The Herodians were unpopular anyway and if Jesus said: “No” then they would have been the ones to denounce Jesus to the Romans. The Pharisees would not have been publicly involved in denouncing Jesus to the authorities and thus they would keep their reputation with the people.
One way to reflect on the Gospel is to place ourselves in the place of the people mentioned and ask ourselves: “Are we doing this”? Sometimes it can be hard to do, and this particular Gospel may be harder to place ourselves in because the characters trying to outwit Jesus have malicious intentions towards Him. At some level all of our sins are the same in type, and they will of course differ in seriousness.
What are the reasons that the Pharisees are attempting to silence Jesus? Probably one of the prominent reasons for their opposition is that Jesus is a contradiction to them. He has warned them a number of times about their sins. These are uncomfortable home truths for them. What about us? We sin too and sometimes it can be hard for us to admit it. Everyone is different and so only Jesus can tell us what our secret faults are. One has to be always willing to be open to Him when He comes knocking.
At the same time however, do not look at oneself without remembering how much God loves us. If you only look at your failures without remembering that God wants to help you overcome them, all you will do is make yourself depressed. In a related way this is one of the reasons that God has given us confession. He wants us to know that we are forgiven.
Another way to consider this is to look at what gifts had God given to the Pharisees? They were obviously clever and learned men. What were they doing with them? They were trying to outwit God. What should they have been doing with their gifts? God had given them their gifts so they could know the scriptures and recognise Jesus when He came. So what are we doing with our gifts?Are we putting of our vocation?
Let’s finish with a quote from Blessed John Henry Newman on his own vocation.
“God was all-complete, all-blessed in Himself; but it was His will to create a world for His glory. He is Almighty, and might have done all things Himself, but it has been His will to bring about His purposes by the beings He has created. We are all created to His glory—we are created to do His will. I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.” Meditations and Devotions
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
– Mt 22:15-21