29th Sunday Year A : Between God and Caesar
The Pharisees and Herodians, irreconcilable enemies in principle, united against Jesus. Later on, the disdain for Jesus of Nazareth strongly united two indomitable adversaries: Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate. With regard to occupation and Roman hegemony (from 63 B.C.), they held diametrically opposed stances: the Pharisees theocratically refused this pagan invasion. Herodians, vassals of Rome, approved of the Romans and willingly collaborated with them. This was only to “drive away” Jesus (the Greek verb gives this meaning ελαβον, élabon) when, in concert, the Pharisee and Herodian disciples posed the embarrassing question: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” The Greeks had two synonymous words “κηνσος” from the Latin “census”, and the Aramaic “qnsa קנסא” (in Mt. 22) as well as the word “φορος” – phoros. Here, it is not a question of taxes paid for vital services of a national government but a tribute-tax paid to an enemy occupier by an occupied people who had an interest.
The Nazarene’s answer was as sublime as unexpected. In fact, it went beyond the issue (where it did not deal with God). It circumvented the deceptive snare since everything was settled routinely: everyone paid the tax without fail. The issue was no more than theoretical with regard to principle, between the acquiescence of the Sadducees and the Herodians on the one hand, and the strong and partisan opposition of the Zealots, as also the not so strong but determined opposition of the Pharisees, on the other. Jesus realized that the Jews actually recognized the sovereignty of Caesar whose money they used. He knows that all was a conspiracy to catch him at fault.
Jesus, at first, denounced the malice of those collaborators. As he asked to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” or “from God”, he raised the issue to a new level. Men should be faithful to God, by keeping his commandments. Implicitly, Jesus condemned the military occupation and the oppression of peoples. At the same time, Christ, yet king but whose kingdom is not of this world, indirectly abolished the political theocracy and the violent, militant, military political and material messianism. He specified that that is Caesar’s domain. He will be declaring that explicitly to the Procurator Pilate.
We do not claim here to explain the words of the Saviour exhaustively. Within the confines of a reflection on the Sunday Gospel, these would be the conclusions and the spiritual lessons to be sought: shed once for all the theocratic mentality, i.e. that of dominating others under the pretext that we belong to God; not to betray our country; not to occupy or oppress other peoples; not to subjugate people around us; not to “tax” others for our assistance and kindness by flaunting our sovereignty!
Fr. Peter Madros