29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, A
October 22, 2017
The framework in which we find ourselves here, with today’s Gospel reading, is still that of the controversy of Jesus with the chiefs of the Pharisees and of the Herodians. The controversy does not express itself in parables, contrary to the Gospel passages of the preceding Sundays, but directly in questions and answers: the Pharisees have already understood that to provoke Jesus regularly was falling back on them. So, they try to put him in awkward positions, through questions-traps.
The evangelist Matthew states it quite clearly: “Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him (Jesus) in speech” (Mt 22: 15).
They will ask Jesus four questions. In today’s reading, we listen to the first which concerns a very burning political subject: “What is your opinion: is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Mt 22: 17).
People used to tackle this issue and problem often: to pay the tribute to Caesar meant to acknowledge the sovereignty of Rome over Israel, and, thus, to enter a sort of idolatry, inasmuch as Caesar was considered by the Romans as a divinity. To affirm the contrary, namely that one should not pay the tax, would have brought the risk of being considered rebels, subversive nations, with the horrible consequences for a subdued people. So, the question had serious religious and political implications at a time. It was the equivalent of the embarrassing question: are you, Jesus, on the side of the Roman occupant who worship Caesar, or are you a true Israelite?”
This Gospel reading is of paramount importance in order to understand deeply the relation, never established once and for all, between politics and faith. Perhaps we grasp this passage and this subject better than our forefathers.
Actually, the Pharisees’ and the Herodians’ malicious question did regard Jesus himself: for the Jews, the only King is God. Since the coming of the Messiah, every foreign occupation should come to an end. The Kingdom of God would have been installed. Then, there would be no need to pay any tax to any foreign ruler, because every dominion would have ceased.
Requesting from Jesus how to behave with the taxes, there lies underneath an implicit question about his affirmation that he is actually the Messiah, the King of Israel: is Jesus really the King of Israel, the awaited Messiah? Would any real King accept that his subjects pay the tribute to another king?
Jesus replies with a question: “You hypocrites, why are you testing me?” (Mt 22: 18).
All along its history, Israel used to put the Lord to the test! The people used to do so every time they did not acknowledge God’s sovereignty, his power, or rather his capacity to save, to nourish and to give life.
And often, when Israel puts the Lord to the test and does not trust Him, the people would seek covenants with the existing major power, as if it were able to provide life to him.
As a matter of fact, Jesus’ reply grasps the center of the problem where it deeply reaches, inside the ambiguity which dwells in human hearts.
The real problem does not actually consist of what to do with money: it bears the image of an earthly king. It cannot but be given back to the one whose image it bears.
The real problem is: what to do with one’s own self, in other words: to acknowledge whose subjects we are, who do we come from and to whom we belong. The true problem is to give back to the Lord His image which is not printed in any object but in our flesh. The true idolatry consists in not giving back to God what is His, namely our very life as human beings, created at his image, and free people, as God’s children.
When this does not happen, the relation with the power becomes an alibi meant to hide our own interests.
It is interesting, in this matter, to see what will happen at the end of Jesus’ case: the Pharisees will ally with the power of Rome in order to be able to condemn Jesus to death.
According to the narrative of John’s Gospel, in front of Pilate who was willing to set Jesus free, the Pharisees and the heads of the tribes will incite against Jesus proclaiming that they did not have any other king except Caesar (cf John 19: 15).
Every covenant with the foreign power demands a price, and this price is to deny, in a certain way, God’s image, written in our own flesh, in order to replace it by that of the reigning Caesar. So, for the sake of a favor, Caesar requests the price of freedom.
But when this happens, when one lives, giving back to God one’s own life, then one is really free, and this freedom will not be neutralized by the paying of a tax.
So, Jesus is truly the awaited Messiah: not because, like a revolutionary, he dismantles the Roman occupation, installing another political power, equally ambiguous.
Neither does he install a purely and completely spiritual kingdom, alien to any earthly reality, Jesus does not inaugurate an idyllic kingdom, far from the burden of life.
But Jesus is king inasmuch as, in the situations of this world, in history, with its injustices and its power games, he reveals to humankind the great dignity that it bears, and that nobody and nothing can ever eliminate: that of being child of God.
Humankind needs, every day, to discern and to keep this divine gift, not to sell it for the sake of the illusion and the deceit of those who promise fallaciously an easy life, because, to every new idolatry, corresponds a new slavery.
But he who keeps the primacy of God and lives in the ambiguities of history does experience that nothing from this world can never prevent us to give back all to the One to whom we have always belonged!