Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
There is a great deal of tension in the gospel today but you have to understand the two groups in the gospel to understand why. The Pharisees and the Herodians who are ganging up on Jesus trying to discount him are in many ways polar opposites. The Pharisees were extreme Jewish nationalists. They had distrust of Rome and wanted to see Israel as an independent state. And the Herodians were extreme Roman sympathizers. They’d become rich by Roman rule, sometimes by the murder and exile of the anti-Roman Pharisees. The only person that could effect reconciliation between these two groups is Jesus, who seems to threaten both. They ask him about taxes: Do good, observant Jews need to pay them or not? If Jesus tells them that they need to pay their taxes, he appears to be aligning himself with the Herodians and would have offended his largely Pharasaic followers. Had he told them that they are not Romans and don’t need to pay their taxes, the Herodians would have strung him up for dissent of the state. He seems to be at an impasse.
I kind of feel at an impasse today. There’s a part of me that would love to talk about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to the government what belongs to it. And how, even in these difficult times, these times of economic downturn when we wonder what out loans and retirement funds are safe, we still need to give to God what belongs to God. But, Paul and Mary Brown did a good job of that last week, reminding us of how we need to sacrifice things in order to be faithful disciples who support our church. And I’m afraid that, if we have a sacrificial giving homily two weeks in a row, you’ll be like the Herodians ready to string me up. There’s another part of me that would like to talk about how, as American Christians, we are obliged to vote. In just a few weeks we will choose the next leader and we need to use the moral principles that guide us as a church to help guide us when we choose the next president. Maybe I could even endorse one of the presidential candidates. Who do you think I would choose to endorse? No, I don’t want to do that. I’ll let you decide which Caesar to vote for and I’ll stick to preaching about God. It seems like, whatever I preach about, there are ways to fall into a trap. So, how did Jesus get out of his trap?
He asked the Pharisees to show him one of the coins that was used to pay the Roman tax. When it was produced, he turned the trap on them. You see, a good, observant Jew could not have had one of these coins. They had a graven image on them, an image of Caesar who believed himself to be God. What was a Pharisee, the most observant of all the Jews, doing with one of these coins? Jesus seems not even to know what the coin looks like, yet he says that it’s okay to give Caesar back his idolatrous coin and to give God what God deserves. What is created in the image and likeness of God? We were created in the image and likeness of God! So, we need to give our very selves back to God if we are to follow Jesus prescription. The Herodians would have been content to be able to keep their riches and the Pharisees would have been able to continue to devote their lives in loving service of the law.
In a sense, Jesus appeases each group with this answer. But, he also challenges each of them. The Herodians have become so accustomed to living the “good life” that they have forgotten the need to give their entire lives back to God. And the Pharisees, in wrapping themselves in their religion, have diluted themselves into believing that paying taxes is, somehow, hurting their religion.
A generation ago, we Catholics had to constantly defend being both American and catholic. And, even though I think we’ve mostly managed to shirk allegations that there is innate contradiction between these two allegiances, I fear now we no longer see the tension in the two. In a sense, we’re becoming like the Herodians who have allowed their riches to blind them to religious obligations. What we do here is totally ineffective if we are not good citizens and good Catholics when we leave. We need to do things like vote, pay attention to traffic signals and speed limits, and pay our taxes. We do this because we are good citizens who give to America what America deserves. But, we also challenge America when she starts trampling on the affairs of God; when she starts wars with countries that may someday have the capacity for hurting us, when she condones the murder of innocent children in the womb, when she attempts to altar the nature of marriage from what it was in the beginning to what a vocal minority scream it should be now. We must stand up and make our voices heard. We feel tension, true. But, lest become the very hypocrites that Jesus scorns in the gospel today, we must remember that our very image, our entire being, is a gift from God and we live in the hope that God will want this image back someday.