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October22, 2017 - Give to God What Belongs to God

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mt 22:21). This perhaps one of the most well-known quotes of Jesus. I would like to reflect on this quote in three questions. 

  1. What is behind this quote? In the Palestinian society of Jesus’ time, there were two types of coins in circulation - the Roman coins and the Herodian coins. The fact that there were two kinds of coins indicates the complexity of the problem. Palestine was usurped into the Roman Empire around 63 BC. However, as a way of pacifying the Palestinian population, the Romans allowed a powerless Herodian dynasty to continue. In Jesus’s time, Herod Antipas was the successor. There was a big difference between the Roman and Herodian coins. In keeping with the Torah, the Herodian coins only had some abstract designs, the value in weight, and the year of mintage. The Herodian coins were used to pay the temple tax. The Roman coins, on the other hand, had a portrait of the emperor on one side and the goddess Roma on the other with an inscription, “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”). This was highly problematic for the Jewish Herodians and the Jewish people because using the coins violated the Torah. However, both the Herodians and the Jewish people had little choice in the matter. The Romans did not accept taxes in Herodian coins, whereas the Herodians had to pay their tax in Roman coins. After all, the Herodians remained in power at the mercy of the Romans. It is clear in the passage that the Herodians who were sent by the Pharisees had brought a Roman coin to Jesus and not the Herodian coin. 
  1. Why is Matthew writing this passage? Matthew’s real purpose of writing this passage is multi-pronged. It is clear in the story that the question about paying taxes was an effort to trap Jesus. If Jesus opposed paying taxes, then he could be associated with the Zealots and get in trouble with the Romans. If he agreed to pay taxes in Roman coins, he would get in trouble with the nationalists who opposed paying taxes. Matthew’s first purpose in writing this story to let his readers know that Jesus had outwitted his opponents. Jesus’s recommendation was simple yet brilliant. Using a technicality, Jesus not only got out of the conundrum but also left the Pharisees look embarrassed, outwitted, and hypocritical. Jesus’ answer was that since it was Caesar’s image that was on the coin, it should be given to him. Hence, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” However, Jesus brilliance was seen in the deeper point hat he was making - God be given that belongs to God. That was not the original question the Pharisees asked. However, Jesus bring the Pharisees to think about greater things than paying taxes - to give to God what belongs to God. The Herodians were not the most pious of Jews. They paid taxes to the Romans in Roman coins to stay in power. Jesus turns the tables on the Herodians and the Pharisees who sent them. Instead of being trapped by them, Jesus exposed their own trappings of power. He taught them that the human person is sacred. He taught them that to manipulate, abuse, or tamper with the dignity of the human person (Like they were doing by trying to trap Jesus) is to violate the God who created them. All of us owe it to God to give to God what belongs to God. 
  1. What practical implications can we draw from Jesus’ quote? What is it that belongs to God? The universe and the earth belong to God. It is our responsibility that we give back to God the world as beautiful as it was when God gave it to us. To exploit the earth for petty gains is to take what belongs to God and give it to the Romans. The human person belongs to God. From the womb to the tomb, the human person is God’s. Perhaps, you are aware of the fallout of the Weinstein scandal. Women have taken over social media with #MeToo. The sexual harassment and abuse of women is the violation of the God given dignity of the human person. Racism, poverty and misery, human trafficking, the glorification of wealth - ways in which we take what belongs to God and give it to the Romans. The scary part of Jesus’ quote is this - that is not only the Romans and the Herodians who were guilty of denying God what belongs to God. You and I can also fall into that very trap. Like Jesus, who took the coin from his opponents hand and examined it, we must examine the raging social, political, and religious issues of our time and be sure that we  are, “Giving to God what belongs to God.” 

May our participation in the Eucharist help us to give to God what belongs to God. 

- Fr. Satish Joseph