New Testament Commentary by Mary Coloe PBVM
What belongs to God?
Religion and politics – always a volatile brew! Today’s Gospel shows that this is not a modern dilemma but one faced by Jesus and his first disciples. While we try to live out the values of God’s kingdom, we are not divorced from the realities of this world, in fact it is this world that we are missioned to, and living in this world demands that we are political – that is, we are part of the society we live in. Vatican II expressed it like this, ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age …are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.’
Jesus had been preaching revolutionary values about the treatment of the poor and the outcasts. He reminded people of God’s way of looking; he spoke of the Kindom of God, which was a dangerous message when preaching in the Roman Empire, where Herod was considered the puppet King. Jesus’ message and his growing popularity with the ordinary Jewish crowds had the possibility of turning society upside down and so some saw him as a social revolutionary. At that time some groups within Judaism were looking for ways to throw off Roman rule and return to having their own independent religious kingdom worshipping God alone – these were the Zealots. The Pharisees in the Gospel set a devious trap. If Jesus says ‘No, don’t pay the tax,’ then he aligns himself with the anti-Roman ideals of the Zealots. If he says ‘Yes, pay the tax,’ then he sides with Rome’s oppression of the people. Note that the people who ask the question represent both Herod, (the Herodians) and the religious leaders (the disciples of the Pharisees). This is a most unlikely mix. Since Herod only has his power with the support of Rome, the Herodians would be likely to support the Roman tax. The coin used to pay the tax was a Roman denarius which had the head of the Emperor – Tiberius Caesar – and the inscription: ‘Tiberius Caesar august son of the Divine high Priest Augustus’. The coin’s image and words would have been offensive to observant Jews.
Jesus turns the tables on his opponents with his response – ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.’ Since the image and inscription are about Caesar then the coin belongs to Caesar. But then Jesus adds, ‘and to God what belongs to God’. This challenges both the Herodians and the Pharisees to consider what belongs to God. There may even be a call to recognise that people are made ‘in the image of God’ and that all people therefore belong to God.
Jesus’ response to his questioners makes me wonder ‘what belongs to God’ in my life. Does God truly get what rightfully belongs to God, or just the leftovers in my busy schedule? If only giving God what belongs to God was a simple as paying taxes. My God asks more of me that that.
© Mary Coloe