35 Get your priorities right. (Mt 22: 15 – 21)
“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.” (Mt 22: 21)
This is a Wisdom Saying, a catch phrase and a truly memorable punch-line. As Jesus went from place to place he must have repeated his teaching again and again. People, in all probability, forgot much of what he said. It was the punch-lines that they remembered. We can easily imagine Jesus’ audience or Matthew’s community walking home muttering to themselves;
“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Mt 22: 21)
What belongs to Caesar is important – we have an obligation to contribute to the common good by paying our taxes. As Christians we should play our part in society being good, loyal and law-abiding citizens.
“What belongs to God” is all that is so precious that we cannot make concessions on what is of God – family, friendship, the sanctity of sex, self respect, compassion, humility, the care of the poor.
There was great tension between Jesus of Nazareth and the religious authorities. Matthew tells us about the running battle that raged between the Scribes, Pharisees and Chief Priests, on one side and Jesus on the other. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem shocked them. “The whole of Jerusalem was shaken.” (21: 1-5) After the cleansing of the temple the children sang out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The Chief Priests and the scribes were indignant. (21: 12-13) “By what authority,” the chief priests demand of Jesus. (21: 23) In reply he tells the parable of the tenants. The Chief Priests and Pharisees, “knew he was talking about them.” Worse still, the people regarded Jesus as a prophet. (21: 23-46) It is not surprising that they would start plotting to get rid of this troublesome man.
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. 17Tell us, then what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
The Pharisees and Herodians who asked this question had prepared well. They put Jesus in an impossible position. If he spoke against the taxation he was sure to be in trouble with the civil authorities for encouraging a riot. Passover was just around the corner. Thousands of Galilean hotheads were flocking into Jerusalem. Everyone knew that it would only take a small incident to spark a riot. Pontius Pilate, the Governor was ready. He and many fresh troops had already arrived from Caesarea. If Jesus spoke one ill-advised word encouraging the people not to pay their taxes Jerusalem could be in flames.
Jesus was also hugely popular. If he spoke in favour of people paying this head tax he was going to lose much of his popular following. “How could he possibly wriggle out of this situation,” wondered the Pharisees and Herodians?
19Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. 20He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” 21They replied, “Caesar’s.”
On one side of the coin was an image of the Emperor Tiberius, and on the other the inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, High Priest.’ No sincere Jew would have walked around with such a coin in his pocket. The Law forbade the making of images. No Jew could have countenanced the claim that the Emperor made to be divine, and yet they were quite happy to produce it and show it to Jesus. If they really objected to the coin, what were they doing with one?
At that he said to them, “Then repay (give back) to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
The confrontation is no longer about taxes. There is the civil authorities represented by Caesar and then there is the image of God.
“God created humanity in his image, in the divine image he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1: 27) Nobody has the right to dominate us, enslave us, to oppress us; we belong to God. Exploitation of workers, prostitution, humiliation, mistreatment of others and burdening others with guilt, are all ways of treating the human person as an object. By treating people in this way, Jesus tells us that we are steeling something that is very precious from our God. “Pay back to God what is God’s,” he tells us.
How do we do this? Five times Matthew will tell us.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (25: 34 – 36)