Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Oct 14, 2020 | Gospel Reflections

Matt. 22: 15-21

Sunday Reflection by Sister Maureen Lomax, SNDdeN

Whose image?
Soon after a baby is born, admirers begin to see physical characteristics in the face and body of the new-born that make them compare the child to its ancestors. Who is she/he like? Is it the father or the mother? It doesn’t take long before relatives begin to compare the early behaviour of the child with their own and that of other close relatives. Soon it is established that the child is truly one of the family, showing likenesses that belong only to this group of people and makes the child truly ‘one of their own’! The family name given at the registration of birth usually establishes the ‘kith and kin’/tribe/clan of the innocent child. However, although the name is important, it is the recognisable likeness, image and characteristics which also mark the child out as a member of that particular family.

For many religious groups, their identity is not simply bound by their physical earthly existence. Soon after birth, such families establish that their new infant ‘belongs to God’. For Jews and Christians, the belief that each person is ‘made in God’s image’ (Gen1:27;) is fundamental. Forbidden by the First Mosaic Commandment to make ‘graven images of God’ (idolatry), the Jewish people believed that each human being is an image of God (not idolatry!). For Christians, the cleansing water and anointing oil of Baptism (Christ-en-ing) become the seal/sacrament, marking the recipient as ‘God’s own’, a member of God’s family.
Matthew, a practising Jew and early convert to Christianity, is at pains to show that Jesus is the true and complete image of God.

From the Messianic genealogy at the beginning of this Gospel to the final chapter, he promotes the link between Jesus and the Messianic prophecies well-known to faithful believing Jews. The narrative about ‘paying taxes’ (Mt 22:15-22) highlights the growing tensions between the Pharisaic interpretation of the Jewish scriptures (i.e. rejecting the blatant fulfilment in Jesus) and the growing Christian belief in Jesus the Messiah. The latter did not reject the Judaic Law and still practised Jewish prayer and rituals, as Jesus did. However, since they were followers of Jesus whom they believed to be the Messiah, they were targeted, with Jesus, by the hypocritical questioning of the Pharisees, aided and abetted by the political Herodians. The Pharisees, supposedly ‘faithful keepers and interpreters of God’s law’, used the Herodians to try to force Jesus to declare his allegiance either to God or to Rome!
The question ‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (Mt22:17), intended as a clever trap for Jesus, becomes pivotal in revealing the hypocrisy and evil intent of the Pharisees. The ‘graven image’ of the Emperor and the inscription declaring Caesar to be ‘god’ and the ‘son of divine Augustus’ is the focal point of this account. For Jewish religious leaders to hold or use this coin was condemned as blasphemy, a denial of the one true God. Yet one of them produced the denarius, the coin used to pay taxes to the Romans, showing in reality that they were compromising their consciences by using it. Allegiance to God, whether Judaic or Christian, on the one hand, and allegiance to Caesar of Rome, on the other, lies in the balance.

The Pharisees ‘hedged their bets’, hoping that Jesus would be shown as a traitor either to Rome or to God (Judaism), through his response to them. Only a week before many Jews had proclaimed ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (Mt 21:9) recognising Jesus as the Messiah (Mt 21:4). The Jewish leaders were not comfortable. Knowingly or unknowingly the questioners, sent by the Pharisees, spoke the truth when they said Jesus was ‘a man of integrity’ and that he ‘taught the way of God in accordance with the truth’ (Mt 22:16). But this language is flattery and betrays the political aims of the Herodians who wanted to ‘keep in’ with the Roman authority. If they had been concerned with ‘the truth’ they would have seen that Jesus, as portrayed by Matthew, clearly fulfils the Messianic prophecies. As for the Pharisees who sent them, their machinations reveal that they too are not ‘truth seekers’. They fear their loss of power and are blind to the Messianic image of Jesus.

Throughout this account, the scheming plotters are trapped by their apparent ‘control’ of events. Jesus allows them to respond by their actions and answers: they readily provide the denarius; they show the image to Jesus; they admit that the image is of Caesar…without coercion or embarrassment. The listeners wait for Jesus to betray his allegiance. But the tables are turned as Jesus speaks with authority: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’. This clever intelligent statement leaves everyone ‘amazed’ (Mt22:22). Jesus cannot be arrested for treachery to Rome or blasphemy against God. The Pharisees failed to trap Jesus.

It is ironic that Jesus, who is God and the Son of God, is able to use the coin depicting the Emperor and the inscription declaring Caesar to be ‘god’ and ‘son of a god’. The denarius itself comes to symbolise the conflict between earthly and heavenly powers. For Romans who accepted Caesar as divine, there is no real issue. Everything belongs to the Roman Emperor, even its people. But for Jewish and Christian believers, there are irreconcilable matters of conscience. Jesus’s final statement, while satisfying the immediate issue, simply raises other questions: What belongs to God? What belongs to Caesar? Doesn’t Caesar’s authority come from God?

Apart from being ‘amazed’ and ‘leaving’ Jesus alone, we are not given any idea what the questioners and listeners thought or did after this event. We do not know if any of them recognised Jesus as the Messiah. It is clear that this answer leaves them to try to reconcile the demands of their religion (God) with their secular and political obligations to Rome. For newly Christianised Jews, like Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah who on this occasion has ‘won the argument’.

In this episode, various people show their true colours, their image, their allegiance. Using the text and your reflections, write your own summary of how you see these people:
Matthew the Jewish Gospel Writer: …………………………………………………………………………………………
Disciples of the Pharisees:

Prayer: ‘Lord, help me to live and be your image for others. Amen.’

N.B. Caesar of Rome: declared as ‘TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS’ (short for ‘TIBERIUS CAESAR DIVI AUGUSTI FILIUS AUGUSTUS’ which means ‘Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus’) on the Denarius coin. In other words, Caesar is divine himself and is the son of a god.

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.”

The Gospel of the Lord


Meet Sister Maureen Lomax, SNDdeN

Maureen Lomax was born in Lancashire, England, on September 1st 1942, the third living child of four, two girls and two boys. Like most families who raised children during the Second World War, her family coped with food rationing, second-hand clothes/furniture, running into the bomb shelter at night during air raids, borrowing and lending sugar/tea/etc., and father away in the Army. Although everything was in short supply, and everyone was encouraged not to waste anything, her mother managed to feed the children, clothe them and see that they were well educated. The children all passed the scholarship and so could attend a Grammar or Technical School from the age of eleven onwards without having to pay school fees. They were very fortunate. That was when Maureen first met the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. From 1953 (the year all war rationing ended), she attended Notre Dame High School in St Helens, Merseyside. She entered the Ashdown Novitiate in 1959, made first vows in 1962 and final vows in 1967. Meanwhile, Sr. Maureen trained as a secondary teacher of English, Music and Religious Education, attending Notre Dame College of Education, Liverpool. She did a degree in Philosophy/Religious Studies at Leeds University in 1974. Over the years she taught mainly in non-selective secondary schools, teaching English, Religious Education, Music, Special Needs and some general subjects to boys and girls from 11 to 18 years of age. Sr. Maureen has worked in various parts of England: Wigan and St Helens in the North West, Norwich in East Anglia, Upminster in East London and Plymouth, Devon, in the South West. Unfortunately, just before she retired from the headship of Notre Dame RC School in Plymouth in 2002, she suffered a High Blood Pressure haemorrhage in her left eye which caused blindness. After her retirement, Sr. Maureen had time to recover her health and then had the privilege of visiting our Sisters in Nicaragua (2007), Peru and California (2008) and Zimbabwe (2009). In each place, she was able to give some practical help and also learn first-hand about the customs and conditions in which people survive. She has always had an interest in the work of our Sisters in these vulnerable parts of the world, and had a lot of theoretical knowledge about them, but being there and meeting the people still remains for her a living memory. Since then, Sr. Maureen has been involved in helping and supporting asylum seekers in Barnsley, North Yorkshire, together with a small Parish Group. She became Chair of Governors at a Roman Catholic and Anglican Secondary School and was able to use her recent experience of school leadership for the benefit of a school in difficulties. As a sideline, she planned and provided music for a parish together with a small group. Sr. Maureen served in Rome as General Secretary of the Sisters of Notre Dame from 2010 through 2013. She ministers now in Britain as a Coordinator for our Sisters in a Notre Dame Health Care facility. Since March 2017 she has been having a break from ‘responsibilities’ and has moved to Birkdale in the north of England. Apart from playing the organ for community Masses, continuing being a School Governor at our Notre Dame College in Liverpool, visiting family and friends and doing little jobs in the house, she is enjoying some respite.