HOMILY & IDEAS

Here are some stones I have overturned to see what ideas are underneath. I hope you can grab hold of something, pull -- and discover that it has some homiletic roots.

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.

This week the Pharisees try to turn the tables on Jesus by becoming the aggressors; for they have been barraged by the words of Jesus for several weeks now. Last week they were represented in a parable as invited wedding guests who refused to come to a wedding banquet thrown by the king for his son. Two weeks ago they were depicted as tenants of a vineyard who refused to give the contracted produce to the landowner -- going as far as killing the servants and even the son of the landowner. Three weeks ago they were portrayed as the son who said to his father -- Yes, I will go into the vineyard to work -- but never does. Four weeks ago they were represented by the all-day workers who grumbled with jealousy and covetousness because the vineyard owner gave all of his workers the same pay regardless of the number of hours they worked. Note that the Greek word for entrap is normally used in the sense of snaring animals during a hunt.

In short the Pharisees are preparing to wind up and hit back.

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.

The first line of this gospel reading clearly informs the reader that the above flattery is empty and deceptive. To maximize the damage they hope to level against the reputation and future of Jesus, it is understood that the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians are confronting Jesus in public where the crowds can observe what the plotters hope to be the ultimate -- painting into a corner. The word -- Teacher -- is used in the Gospel of Matthew only by those who are not true disciples.

We have seen this strategic confrontation elsewhere in scripture. For example, in Jn 8 we see the woman caught in the act of adultery used as a pawn to entrap Jesus and in Mk 11 we see Jesus answering a question with a question when his authority is questioned. Ironically, perhaps the only place we see Jesus forfeit his advantage in a quibble of words is with the Syrophoenician woman in Mk 8. Her question -- her plea -- was from the heart and pure.

A few words about the Pharisees and the Herodians are in order on account of this very odd pairing of entrappers. Normally these two groups would have been in complete opposition to one another. The Pharisees resented the demand of any tax payment to a foreign king; for they believed that God was their only king. The Herodians, on the other hand, were the supporters of the family of Herod the Great, the King of Galilee, who received his power from the Romans and therefore supported the collection of taxes in this quid pro quo relationship with Rome. Nevertheless, that which caused them to overcome their differences -- if only for a few moments -- was their common hatred of Jesus. Both groups felt threatened by Jesus.

Since the questioners are insincere, Jesus may not feel compelled to respond with an illustrative and lengthy answer to shepherd restless consciences.

Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?

Three types of taxes were regularly collected by the Roman Government: Ground Tax, Income Tax, and Census Tax. The Ground Tax consisted of 1/10th of any grain and 1/5th of any oil or wine that a farmer produced. This was paid using actual produce or the monetary equivalent thereof. Income Tax was one percent of the income of an individual. The Census Tax was paid by every male between the age of 14 and 65, and every female between the age of 12 and 65. The Census Tax, one denarius, was a bit more than one day of wages.

With Characters and motivations aside, the question posed to Jesus is a brilliant one from a strategic point of view. If Jesus said that it was unlawful or unethical to pay the Census Tax, then he would be immediately labeled as an insurgent and a revolutionary and reported to the Roman Government. Perhaps they desired to link Jesus to the Zealots who refused to pay their taxes making themselves enemies to the Romans. On the other hand, if Jesus said that it was lawful and ethical to pay the Census Tax, then he would discredit himself in the midst of the Jews that had gathered; for it would be as if Jesus was acknowledging a king on par or superseding God.

Knowing their malice, Jesus said -- Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.

The aggressive rally of the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians is short lived. Jesus quickly sees through their empty flattery and turns the tables -- again.

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 denarius was stamped with the image of the emperor. This practice was an efficient way to remind the populace who, indeed, was king. Also, these coins were considered to be the property of the king whose image was stamped upon it.

The response of Jesus is as clever as the question posed to him -- actually, more. He answers their question with another question and foils their ambush by calling attention to the face of a single coin. The axiom of Jesus does not attempt to reconcile the two obligations -- one to Caesar, one to God. Again, such a response would be wasted on such an insincere audience. The message instead from Jesus may be this: You who I have represented in my parables -- you who grumbled with jealousy and covetousness -- you who say YES to the father, but did not follow through -- you who did not give the contracted produce to the landowner -- you who snubbed the invitation to celebrate with the Father and the Son -- you need to be more concerned of the things of heaven and the things of God; rather than the things of earth, and the things of Caesar.

When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

This last verse does not appear in the Lectionary; however, it is significant insofar as it brings closure to the story.

HOMILY: Each one of us retains double citizenship. We are citizens of our own countries as well as citizens of God. We owe our country for the things we receive: police protection, fire protection, clean water, roads, education, transportation infrastructure, etc. We pay with the currency of our country -- the accumulation of which we think, at times, determines our worth. Our true worth, however, comes from the fact that the likeness of God is inscribed on our bodies and souls. The denarius bears the image of Caesar. We bear the image of God. Caesar has his tax collectors. God has his. It is Jesus who collects back what belongs to God by instructing us how to find our way back from where we came. God demands back the yield of our lives -- nothing more, but nothing less.

HOMILY: Perhaps this story has less to do with reminding us what belongs to Caesar -- or to the government; and more with reminding us what belongs to God. Have we divided our life, our recreation, our work, our political beliefs, our moral stances, our ideologies, etc., into neat, clean, mail slots as in a wall of post office boxes because some of these boxes are incompatible with others? Can we conclude that everything belongs to God; therefore there is no need to create such divisions in our lives? Can we conclude that everything in our lives should be effected by God?

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