Paying Caesar, paying God?

Reflection for the 20th Sunday after Trinity

Matthew 22,15-22

Previously, Jesus criticised the Pharisees in the parables of the tenants and the wedding feast. Today’s Gospel reading is the first of four disputes between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day. The Pharisees conspired to trap Jesus through cunning argument and so posed the perfect question, “Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?”

Leaving aside the obvious, that wherever you go, people will do their upmost to avoid paying taxes. This was a contentious issue, simply because Rome had occupied and repressed Israel, especially in taxing the Jews. Indeed this subjection to the Roman authorities was a source of bitter resentment. The insult went deeper, in that the very coinage had the image of Caesar stamped on it with the words “Son of the divine Augustus”. To the people of God, this was blasphemy.

Peter Paul Rubens, “Tribute penny”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So the Pharisees set a trap for Jesus, because they assumed that someone proclaiming the Kingdom of God, would surely not endorse such a tax. If Jesus was the Messiah, delivering Israel from its oppressors must be his priority. So if he supports the tax, then his followers will abandon him. But on the other hand if Jesus encourages people to defy the tax, he will face the consequences of persecution, humiliation, and death by crucifixion.

The Lord’s opponents thought they had Jesus “caught between a rock and a hard place”. But alas, Jesus fully aware of their deceit asks the Pharisees the name of the person whose face is represented on the coin. Caesar. His swift and stunning reply “pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God” completely disarmed his adversaries.

Perhaps it’s important to interpret this parable in the light of the whole story. This is not a comprehensive statement on the relationship between God and political authority. Taxes are gathered for the common good. We are expected to obey the just laws of society. Jesus is not afraid of political confrontation. Christians should and do get involved in politics, for example the historical abolition of the slave trade. What about unjust laws?

During the time of Nazi Germany, Christians were prosecuted and sent to the concentration camps for opposing the persecution of the Jews. The Sixth Commandment says, “Thou shalt do no murder”. In modern times we have seen the liberalisation of attitudes toward abortion and euthanasia. Surely as orthodox Christians we need to take a stand and protect the sanctity of life. Jesus was fully aware that he is walking to his death, but it will be on his terms. He knows that ultimately the Kingdom of God will defeat the Emperor’s Roman Kingdom, and it will do so on a far more fundamental and cosmic level by defeating an even greater power, death itself.

Fr. Nathan Williams

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