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October, 15 2014

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Dr. Susan Fleming McGurgan

 

Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

Over the past 2,000 years, these words have generated thousands of commentaries, reflections, sermons and opinions--enough to fill a library section or large moving van. Enough to fuel Church/State discussions for generations to come.  Enough to return 25 million Google results in .042 seconds. These words can argue for the separation of Church and state and for Church/State collaboration. They have been used to prove a Christian’s obligation to pay taxes and as the authority for a Christian to avoid taxes. Depending on your point of view, these words have encouraged Christians to respect the sovereignty of the state and to reject it; to actively participate in the civil government and to stand apart from it.      

Like so many stories, teachings and sayings of Jesus, this episode is brief, simple and memorable. It is also challenging--and to judge from the wildly conflicting conclusions drawn by scripture scholars, pastors and politicians through the millennia—it is also confusing.   

Palestine in the time of Christ was an occupied territory and the sight of soldiers was as common then as it is now. Men such as Pontius Pilate, who took temple money to repair the aqueduct and brought the army standards, painted with images of pagan gods, into Jerusalem, did little to ease the Jews’ distress. Many of their own people—the wealthy and powerful among them—collaborated with the Romans and shared in the oppression of their people. Others prayed for the Messiah or worked toward a day of freedom, knowing that it might result in violence and turmoil. 

The Roman Provincial tax system was crushing. Taxes were farmed out on a pyramid structure, with a wealthy Roman purchasing the taxation for an entire province. The work was then subdivided, layer by layer, slice by slice, middle-man by middle-man, each taking a profit by increasing the total until it rested in the hands of a man like Zacchaeus.  

Only Roman coins could be used to pay these taxes and the very coins themselves—each one a miniature work of art and commerce and propaganda, added insult to injury. Every coin carried an image of the Emperor or a member of his family and a motto such as, “Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus.”  For the devout Jew, each coin was both a graven image and the image of their own oppression.   

Emotions ran high, so when the Pharisees and the Herodians questioned Jesus, they knew that no matter how he answered their question, he would make enemies. “Is it lawful to pay the Census tax to Caesar?” Say “Yes” and his prophetic message would be tainted by collaboration with the oppressor. Say “No”, and he would be in trouble with Rome. For those looking to trip Jesus up, this was a win-win situation.

His answer surprised and challenged everyone. It still does.

I don’t believe that Jesus was charting a roadmap for Church/State relations or teaching us that money has no place in religion. Nor should we return every coin with a government image to the government or count ourselves free to ignore our responsibilities as citizens of a sovereign state.

Rather, I think Jesus is inviting us to examine the coin and then examine ourselves. Whose image does the coin bear? Whose image do we bear? While Caesar is in the business of minting coins, God is in the business of minting souls. Caesar gets his own image returned to him in taxes and tribute, but because our souls bear the diving image of God, our lives, our hearts and our talents should be “repaid” to God. For Jesus, the question isn’t “How much do you owe?”, but rather, “Who do you look like?”

Isaiah, like all prophets, views everything through a lens focused on God. In the first reading today, Isaiah reminds us, “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the Lord, there is no other.” 

Whether we know God or not, acknowledge God or not, we belong to God. There is no "other." We are each minted in God’s image—named, titled and armed for action.  

When we remember who we look like, we can begin to recognize the faces of those around us--each one also created in the image and likeness of God. When we remember who we look like, the truth of that knowledge will light our way into the lonely deserts and desperate streets. That truth will transform us, allowing us to become agents of hope even in the darkest of times.  

Whether we pay taxes to Caesar in Rome or to leaders in Washington or Columbus or Cincinnati is not important. What matters to Jesus, and to us, is the coin of the soul.

 

 (c) Susan McGurgan

 

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