Caesar’s Coin — the Least of Our Problems

Caesar's coinThen the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. (Matthew 22.15-21)

It is tempting to see it as providential that we have this Gospel on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, just two weeks before the election. But the problem is that the text does not tell us what to do, who to vote for. “How would you vote, Jesus?” we ask. “Give politics and political power due respect,” he might reply, “but at the same time, give to God what is God’s.” Not the one nor the other, but both. This is good advice, we may surmise, but it does not tell us how to vote on November 3.

To make better sense of this enigmatic teaching, we need to turn to the gloomy context in which this teaching occurs. In Matthew 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the final time, in a triumphant scene that surely scares his enemies, but occurs just a few days before his shocking death. But Matthew, like Mark before him, then fills the days with increasingly hard and harsh scenes. Jesus makes a whip and drives the money changers from the temple. He curses a fig tree because it does not bear fruit when he passes it:

"Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. (21.19)

And then there is a tense set of confrontational scenes that follow, eight altogether. In Matthew 21,

1. Jesus refuses to justify his authority — by confronting them with the question of John the Baptist, whom Herod killed. Where does religious authority come from?

2. Jesus tells the parable of the two sons, the one who says yes but does nothing, and the one who says no, but then does the right thing.

3. Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard, the resentful tenants, and the slaughter that follows.

In Matthew 22, where today’s Gospel is found, the ominous parables and confrontations continue:

4. Jesus tells the parable of the wedding feast, the resentful guests, and the slaughter that follows.

5. The question of the tax, and the dilemma of God and Caesar, our Gospel passage today.

6. They introduce the nearly absurd case of the woman who married in turn seven brothers all of whom died: to whom is she married in the afterlife?

7. Questioned, Jesus insists that the Law is captured in two great commandments: Love God, love your neighbor. This is the more serene of the eight encounters, and will be our Gospel next Sunday, October 25.

8. Interrogated about the Messiah — Is he David’s son? — Jesus replies, No, you cannot pin him down that way. The Messiah is from God.

As Matthew 22 ends, Jesus has reduced his powerful and learned antagonists to silence:

No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (22.46)

But things do not get better right away. In Matthew 23, Jesus launches into a long series of woes, excoriating the would-be leaders of the people, and weeps over the doomed city of Jerusalem. In Matthew 24, he predicts vividly the destruction of the Temple. And, of course, only a few days later these same leaders, for the moment thwarted and not daring to question Jesus further, will be working with the Romans to have him murdered.

Jesus argues over CaesarIt is in this gloomy context then, the tense final days of the ministry of Jesus and this prolonged combat of wits and words, that we have today’s argument about Caesar’s coin. It is simply the fifth in the series of eight confrontations. That is, it is not special wisdom, as if Matthew (or Mark before him) had decided to take up church-state relations in the context of the last and holiest week of the life of Jesus.

So shall we pay the tax to Caesar, whose brutal army is occupying our country? In a sense Jesus trivializes this big question, suggesting that they simply return to Caesar his coins, those little metal things with Caesar’s face on them. But they are also to give to God what is God’s — but what is not God’s? God cannot be so easily reduced to a face, a name, a small thing you can keep in your pocket or give away.

Jesus in an odd way is agreeing with them: there is no divinely ordained answer as to how God and Caesar should relate. You can get in trouble by complete deference to secular power, but also by dreaming of a theocracy protective of your own religion. Life is not so easy. The solution seems to be that individuals have to discern and to make choices: as to how to balance this world and the things of God, in the year 33 or in 2020.

But most basically, the point of these accumulated encounters and arguments is that Jesus, newly arrived in Jerusalem, really is the one they have been waiting for, despite their petty resentments. In all eight instances of parable and confrontation, the underlying point is that these leaders and scholars have been resisting Jesus as the one sent by God. They cannot believe it, as if they are thinking, "No real messiah would stand here arguing with us." They are insulted by the obviousness of the moment. Caesar is not their problem — their own stupidity and malice are. In this context, the tax is a small matter: Caesars come and go.

Sorry to be so gloomy! But such is today’s Gospel, which we have to read not as detached wisdom on politics and religion, but as one more battle between fakery and truth, grubby power and God's presence among us.

Biden and TrumpIf today's Gospel does not tell us how to vote (nor will I, in this homily), what can we take away from it? First, perhaps we can be consoled by the fact that our awful 2020 is matched by the awfulness of the world Jesus found himself in. There is no irenic, perfect past that we can flee to, where Christ’s teachings reigned supreme and everyone had the same values. Second, there is no neat solution as to how the Gospel and politics are to mesh, and certainly no predigested answer as to how Catholics are to vote in 2020: figure it out for yourself, Jesus might say, balance the wants of political power and your obligations to God, and live a life that fits that balance. Finally, the deepest message may be this: there will always be resistance to God’s arrival in our midst, resentment against those who speak honestly in God’s name, spurts of violence aimed at quashing the truth. In 2020, like two thousand years ago, key is to be open to God’s reality in our lives, God’s unexpected arrival, God’s inconvenient truth. And if we are open to God, if we give back to God the everything that is God's due, then politics will be relatively easy by comparison. Read the Gospel, encounter Jesus who always tells the hard truths, and then read up, study the issues, and use your common sense in figuring out how to vote.

Endnote: It is important to remember that even if these chapters in Matthew highlight the opposition to Jesus of certain leading Pharisees and learned scholars of the Law, this does not mean that all Pharisees were wicked or all scholars of the Law blind to God’s truth and goodness. Not the case, never the case. Jesus surely had pious and learned friends and admirers who were Pharisees and Saducees and Scribes. There is no excuse at all in these chapters to demean Jewish faith and tradition.


Bonus: On Thursday, October 22 at 430pm the Study of Religion at Harvard is hosting a conversation on religion and the elections, with three distinguished Catholic participants: James Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History, and E.J. Dionne, Visiting Professor in Religion and Political Culture at HDS, for a conversation on religion and the 2020 election. It will be moderated by Catherine Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at HDS. Register for the webinar or watch on the HDS Facebook page.