Sermon: 18th Sunday after Trinity (OT 29-A)

18 Trinity (OT 29c)
Mt 22.15-21
19 October 2014
Fr. Patrick Allen

 + + +

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old saying of practical – even Machiavellian – politics.  And we see it on full display in this morning’s Gospel lesson: The Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle Jesus in his talk; and they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians…”

Of course, normally, the Pharisees and the Herodians would have had nothing to do with each other – except perhaps to throw stones at one another.  The Pharisees were Jewish nationalists, who longed to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. The Herodians were, as you might guess, supporters of Herod, who himself was backed by the Romans – “go along and get along” was their attitude. And yet, here they are together with a question for Jesus – although it’s not really a question at all, at least not an honest one.

Tell us, then, what you think, they ask. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?

Again, it’s not a question; it’s a trap. If Jesus answers that paying the tax is unlawful – that is, opposed to Torah – then Jesus will immediately be guilty of insurrection, of fomenting rebellion. Calvin Coolidge famously said that “the business of America is business,” and I sincerely believe he was wrong about that – the business of America is the liberty of persons and communities. But in a very real sense, the business of Rome really was business. The whole point of extending the empire into backwaters like Palestine was to collect taxes and send them back to Rome, and there was no toleration for anyone who called the system into question.

This was no new issue. In fact, when Jesus would have been a young boy, there was a revolt on precisely this issue, and the Romans had ruthlessly crushed it, leaving the countryside littered with crucified revolutionaries.

On the other hand, if Jesus answers that it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he will alienate the people, who hated the Romans and found the tax offensive and a token of injustice and oppression. Indeed, all those crowds of people who supported Jesus, those who welcomed him with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” when he entered Jerusalem just a few days before, supported him as a hoped-for political and military Messiah – and what’s the point of that if not to get rid of these hated Romans and their taxes.

So, how will Jesus answer? Notice, first of all, how he begins: he asks his questioners to produce the money for the tax. It’s worth noting that he himself doesn’t have one. And the fact that his questioners do reveals that they themselves are already blithely complicit in the Roman system.  The coin would have been the Roman denarius, with Caesar’s image stamped upon it, and the words “Caesar, Son of God, High Priest” engraved around the edge – all of which, from the commandment-violating “graven image” of a human being to the blasphemous inscription would have been deeply offensive to any devout Jew.

And so we may, I think, fairly imagine Jesus holding the coin slightly away from himself, much as someone might handle a dead rat, a maybe some foul bit of trash pick up while walking along the beach, now ready to ask his own question: Whose likeness and inscription is this?

Caesar’s, they reply. Then, says, Jesus, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Rather than falling into the trap that has been set, Jesus offers a new way to think about their money – namely, hard as it was, hard as it is, to believe, that money is not ultimate. There has been a movement in recent years towards an enforced secularization in American society – that is, from governmental neutrality among religions, or between religion and no religion, and towards a kind of official atheism in which all references to the divine and transcendent are scrubbed from public life. And so we have seen attempt to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, but also the motto “In God we trust” from our money.  Now, in general, I think we ought to be concerned about that – although my concern there is more as an American than as a Christian.

But there is, let us admit, a certain and unavoidable irony in placing the motto “In God we trust” on our money, of all things, because we so deeply trust in money to fix what ails us. “Money don’t get everything, it true / But what it don’t get, I can’t use,” the Beatles sang.

Jesus, without saying anything about the justice or injustice of the tax or the Roman occupation, asks his opponents, and asks us as well, to consider just where their true allegiance, their faith, lay. Why he asks, are you so concerned, to the point of violent revolution or the compromise of your consciences, with this stuff? Have you made a means into an end? Have you made a secondary concern an ultimate?

Or, to put it another way, Jesus was essentially saying that political oppression and unfair taxation were not their biggest problems.

And so then he adds, and render unto God the things that are God’s. We see the connection. The coin belongs to Caesar and should be returned to him, because it bears his likeness. The word in St. Matthew’s Greek is eikon, and it is the same word used in the Greek language version on the Hebrew Bible when, in the Genesis creation account, God says, “Let us make man in our own image…”

You, your whole self, belong to God, Jesus is saying, and that is the issue you need to deal with. As an ancient commentator on this passage said, “The image of God is not impressed on gold, but on the human race. Caesar’s coin is gold, God’s coin is humanity…. Therefore give your riches to Caesar but keep for God the unique innocence of your conscience, where God is contemplated….”

God’s claim, Jesus is reminding us, is much more sweeping than Caesar’s. Caesar wants your money, but God wants your reason, your body, your sexuality, your time, your creativity, your thinking and your speaking, your waking and sleeping, your living and dying – every human capacity. Jesus is simply asking us to ask, “What am I, and what am I for?”

This analogy between Caesar and our Father in heaven, of course, quickly breaks down: Caesar is a taker, and God is a lover. God’s claim does not stunt or limit our human capacity, but places them in the context in which they can be properly used toward their true ends, and so flourish and grow: it is not arbitrary choice but conformity to the truth that actually sets us free.

God is a lover; “God is love.” It is here that we learn what it means at the most basic level to render… unto God the things that are God’s. God is not a solitude, but is perfectly and eternally a loving communion of persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And for this reason, as Pope Benedict put it, “the human person, the image of God, realizes himself or herself in love, which is a sincere gift of the self.”

And there we have that truth that sets us free: we bear God’s image, and so we are made for love, become most truly ourselves when and as we love.  I’m tempted to say that God becomes most truly himself as he loves: but that would be heresy, or at least a very sloppy way of talking about God: God does not “become”; God is always and only truly himself.

But the place we may see him most clearly for who he always and only is in Jesus Christ and his perfect and full gift of himself, which these Pharisees and Herodians, conspiring with Caesar’s representatives, are about to engineer. As St. Paul says in the epistle to the Colossians, “He is the image – the likeness, the eikon – of the invisible God… For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

It is there, in Christ’s whole gift of himself on the cross, that we see love, that we see “the invisible God” in whose image we are made, and that we may learn what it means to render unto God the things that are God’s. And there, at the same time – or first, even – that we may see Jesus making up our own shortfall in love, rendering to God the perfect offering of love on behalf, that perfect oblation to which we unite ourselves and our intentions in this Holy Mass.

+ + +


Benedict XVI, Angelus, Trinity Sunday 2005:

N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone

Carl E. Olson, “Taxes, Tricks, and the Roman Coin.”: