‘Render unto Caesar’ answer satisfies no one

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Jesus would have made a good politician. He deftly evades the question posed by the Pharisees and Herodians in Sunday’s Gospel reading: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Mt 22:15-21)

His interrogators have tried to set him up with these words: “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.”

If the Pharisees and Herodians know that Jesus is not concerned with their opinion of him, then why are they seeking to flatter him? It sounds contradictory.

Are they secretly hoping that their evaluation of him is incorrect, so that Jesus can be manipulated into giving them a favorable response? And what would that have been?

What would a “no” answer have meant? It would have pleased the Pharisees. They did not support the Roman government. Although they did not go to the extent of open rebellion, such as urged by the Zealots, they were highly critical of this often brutal and oppressive occupation of their country.

If Jesus had answered, “No, it is not lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar,” he would have appeared to take the side of the Pharisees.

In this respect, the Pharisees were the exact opposite of the Herodians. Not much is known about these supporters of King Herod. We do know that King Herod headed the puppet regime under the thumb of the Romans. An endorsement of the census tax would have fit in with their agenda.

These two opposing forces have joined together in this effort to trap Jesus. He is the common enemy who has united them. But they fail.

Jesus has managed to rise above the petty politics of the day. He does not ally himself with either side. And in that way, he defeats them both.

On the surface, his answer appears to satisfy both sides: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” But it is not at all clear.

It may look as though the census tax belongs to Caesar, because the coin to pay it bears his name. At the same time, do not all things belong to God? Did not God create all things? So then, what would that leave to Caesar?

Jesus’ answer can mean almost whatever you want it to. As I said, Jesus would have made a good politician.

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