October 22, 2023
Matthew 22: 15-21
A glance at the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-22.
This excerpt comes in a series of parables and stories about the kingdom (kindom). What is the kindom? How does it work? This 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time is more of a story. It’s full of malice, a trick really. This trick, however, could have heavy consequences if poorly answered. The malice is revealed in verse 15: the Pharisees came up with a plan to catch Jesus at some word. The Pharisees, who were from the Temple and against the Roman Empire occupying the territory, sent their disciples with Herodians, disciples from another group that was favorable to the Roman Empire. The idea was to catch Jesus in the act of breaking the law.
I can imagine Jesus thinking: “Here comes trouble.” When he saw these two groups coming. The disciple of the Pharisees spoke praising Jesus saying that he is truthful (honest, transparent) and teaches the way of God and that he does not give preference to anyone, he treats everyone equally. Now comes the loaded question: “Is it lawful or not to pay the tax to Cesar?” He is asking Jesus to publicly declare whether or not he supports the Roman Empire. If he says yes, he is declaring support for the Empire, which is against the law of the Temple, even though he knows that the Temple has made a convenient alliance with the Romans in order to be able to continue to maintain its position of authority and privilege. (The Sadducees, who were another Temple group, large landowners, had no problem paying taxes, so they kept the “peace” and their lands.) If he says no, he is in flagrant rebellion against the Roman power.
Jesus stops, looks, and I can imagine a moment’s silence, and responds with a question that unmasks the trickery: “Why do you put me to the test?” He knows they already know the answer, but they do not have the courage to accept the consequences. One more question comes: After asking them to show the tax coin, Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription is this?” This moment is charged: first they had a coin to show. They dealt with these things themselves. At that time, each type of transaction had its own currency. There was a currency to pay taxes, another to pay offerings and tithes and currencies to do other businesses.
These Pharisees had in their possession a coin of the Empire. This coin has an image on it. Images were not allowed on anything according to Jewish law. This coin has the image of Caesar on it. “The end of the conversation is: return to Cesar what is Cesar’s.” He didn’t say pay the tax, but return what belongs to Cesar. At the end of the day, he has his image on the coin, (which shouldn’t be there). Give back the coin is what Jesus says, intended, “And abandon this blasphemy, this sin, this support of the occupying power.” He didn’t say it, but the Pharisees understood it, and the people watching this scene understood it too.
“And return to God what is God’s.” Two questions arise for me: what is of God, then? And how do we return it? God created everything, everything in the universe. Men and women build by making use of what God has created. We ask: For what did God create everything? We answer: out of love and for love: For the love of living beings, for the love of life, for the love of everything he did. How do we return it? First, understand that nothing is ours, but everything is God’s. Second, start from the point that everything God created is for life, life in abundance for all living beings, and for all of nature, and everything is out of love. So, if everything is from God, and God created everything for life, our response is to share, to live in communion, to do nothing that will diminish anyone’s life or nature’s life and to do everything that will protect and promote life and nature. To return what is from God to God is to live in a way that generates life, defends life, protects life, shares life.Meditating on these words, I was in the forest of the Bethany Pastoral Center of the Diocese of Altamira-Xingu. I was looking at the primary forest and the acai forest that was planted about ten years ago and is now quite large. How can you put a price on a tree in the woods? In the forest of Anapu’s settlements, we see huge trees of ipê, Brazil nut trees, kapok (which throws 1000 liters of water into the atmosphere per day), angelim, amarelão, acapu, how can you put a price on these trees and justify the felling?
Every day, we watch the news and we see the violence against the Palestinian people, the Israeli people in Gaza, the Ukrainian people, the people of Afghanistan causing death; injuries to body, mind, and soul; destruction of livelihoods and destruction of basic life services. In letters from our sisters in Nigeria and Congo I receive news of tensions and violence among the peoples inside these countries. In whose interest are these wars? Here in Brazil we continue to witness the death of indigenous peoples, original peoples in the forests and on riverbanks, and youth in the cities. This is not how we give back to God what is God’s, and the people are God’s.
Jesus challenges us today: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s: get out of the game of the powers of the empires of power and wealth. If, as followers of Christ, we accept to live this challenge, let us together seek how to do this as individuals, communities and a congregation. Return to Caesar: Abandon the game of the system of domination, exploitation, and death. Return to God what is of God: Embrace life and the consequences of returning to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This means we defend the peoples whose lives are threatened, we nurture the environment, we protect and promote life in where and every where we can.
Reflection: How do I return what belongs to Caesar to Caesar?
How do I give back to God what is God’s?
Matthew 22: 15-21
The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“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.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”
Meet Sister Katy Webster, SNDdeN