“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is 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.”
For today, it’s difficult to separate this reading from my experience here in Rome over the last two weeks of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. After all, as I write this, the bells are ringing in St. Peter’s Square for Sunday Mass, in which Pope Francis will officially declare Pope Paul VI “blessed” in the beatification ceremony. The beatification provides the ceremonial finish to the struggle of the church to work within the world while still proclaiming the truths of the Gospel and its teachings.
That was, after all, the Great Commission given to us by the risen Christ, in Matthew 28:16-20. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” The Apostles had to go out into the world as missionaries, taking the the teachings of Christ to people where they were, in order to convert them to salvation through His Word.
To be in the world, though, does not necessarily mean to be of the world. The passage above reflects the dangers inherent in falling too much toward the latter, and the way it can trap people who are too clever for their own good. The Pharisees fear Jesus because He threatens their worldly authority, and want to find a way to get Him out of the way. This question is designed to trap Jesus in one of two ways. If He endorses Caesar as a temporal leader in order to protect Himself from the Romans, then Jesus’ many followers who chafed at Roman domination would become immediately disenchanted. If Jesus balked at paying the tax, then the Pharisees could prove to the Romans that Jesus was a rebel, at which point the Romans would deal with Jesus without the Pharisees dirtying their hands. Either way, the Pharisees figure they would come out winners.
The problem with this plan is that it completely missed the point of Jesus’ ministry. Even at that stage, while Jesus focused on Israel, Jesus didn’t preach temporal revolution or political action, but personal repentance and preparation for eternal life in the kingdom of God. The Pharisees — and many of Jesus’ followers too, at this point — assumed Jesus meant His ministry to fulfill the common expectation of the Messiah, which was the re-establishment of the Davidic kingdom in Israel and the expulsion of the Romans. Even after the Sermon on the Mount and the years of Jesus’ prophetic teachings, the Pharisees remained locked into a worldly context in which political and cultural issues took precedence over salvation and eternal life with the Lord.
Jesus dismisses this elaborate plan by undercutting its basic premise. The Pharisees, and everyone else, used the coin of the realm for trade and tax payments, and for their own purposes too; they had little choice in the matter, thanks to Roman domination. Jesus certainly understood this, and also understood the hypocrisy this challenge represented because of it. More than that, though, the census tax and the coin represent nothing about what Jesus wanted to teach. It’s an irrelevancy, a silly distraction, which is exactly how Jesus treats it in His response. Even the framing of the question reveals the lack of seriousness in which the Pharisees had taken His teaching, speaking of “the way of God in accordance with the truth” and then asking him a question about taxes in the Roman system.
Jesus did not come to the world to discuss tax policy, or to play politics. He did not suffer death on the cross and the glory of resurrection to reorder international boundaries. His mission was to save people from their sin, no matter where they lived, what language they spoke, what currency they used, or under what kind of government they suffered. All of those issues are of import to people in their daily lives, to be sure, and cannot simply be ignored. But what Jesus demonstrated in this exchange is that those issues are of little consequence when compared to eternal salvation.
In some ways, we have struggled with those same conflicts over the last two weeks. As Christians, we need to find people where they are to proclaim the Word. We walk among the wounded and the lost, calling them to hear Jesus’ teachings and inviting them to become part of salvation. When we focus too much on the cultural and political issues of our times, we run risks of either pushing people away before they can hear that saving Word, or spend so much time in addressing the cultural issues that we forget to teach people to obey what Jesus taught to the Apostles, or make it secondary to our own need to fit into the world. And this struggle has been at the heart of the debate for the last two weeks here at the Vatican, as it will continue to be at the heart of the debate for the next year as the Catholic Church tries to find ways to give more people access to the Word while not getting lost in the cultural and political eddies of our time.
In the end, we are all sinners in need of salvation through Christ. Jesus calls to us all to embrace that salvation, not by immersing ourselves in worldly distinctions and cares, but by finding ways to give the broadest fulfillment of His Great Commission while still proclaiming the truth of His Word. In order to succeed at that, we all have to recall Jesus’ sacrificial love for all of us, and understand that ministry of the truth in love means that we must also sacrifice our own standing in the world at times to follow in His way. In the end, the only true coin of the realm is caritas in its fullest measure.