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.”
I’m not one for TV ads, but a few of them make me laugh. One in particular, an insurance commercial, reminds me of my own attitude when I bought my first car. “You loved that car,” a young woman says, “and you named it Brad.” She talks about the car as if it was the center of her life, as a lover that returned her affection, and so replacing all other priorities, which … seems pretty familiar to me. I won’t tell you what I named the first car I bought on my own — it wasn’t “Brad,” to be sure — but suffice it to say that it took up an inordinate amount of my affection. Especially since it was a Datsun 210.
Eventually, of course, I began to take a more pragmatic approach to vehicles — still appreciating them, but realizing that their function was to get me from point A to point B in as safe a manner as possible. My car didn’t make me any better or worse a person, nor did it really have any identity except as a practical asset for transportation. The power of experience, plus the gradual realization of the coolness disparity between a Datsun 210 and just about anything else on the road, served to remind me that things don’t replace people, and don’t serve well as idols around which to build our lives.
Unfortunately, this tendency to build idols out of either things or people runs deep within humanity. The Lord warned His people about this right from the beginning, in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve knew that to eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree was to taste death, and yet were tempted into doing so by the thought that they would become gods themselves, on equal footing with the Lord. They did not want the Lord as their God, but wanted to put themselves at the center of their own universes. In doing so, they rejected the bonds between themselves and the Lord and left the paradise that humanity has sought ever since.
This impulse to create idols is so strong within us that it’s literally the first warning the Lord gives the Israelites when they come to Mount Sinai in Exodus. “I, the Lord, am your God,” the First Commandment reads, and “You shall not have other gods besides me.” At about the time the Lord wrote this on the tablet, the Israelites had despaired and created a golden calf to worship rather than the Lord. It seems God knows us much better than we know ourselves, and even more than we know Him at times.
The prophet Isaiah notes that lack of knowledge in our first reading today. In the preceding passages in chapter 44, Isaiah decries the folly of idol worship as a silly, self-referential exercise that utterly lacks wisdom or sense. “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know.” Men build out of the materials from the earth the Lord created, and mistake the products of those materials and their own handiwork as gods in and of themselves. Isaiah scoffs at the arrogance and ignorance:
No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire, I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted flesh and have eaten; and shall I make the residue of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
This comes in prelude to the anointing of Cyrus as the Lord’s chosen leader and instrument. In anointing Cyrus, Isaiah makes clear that the Lord has not been fooled about His people, or Cyrus either, for that matter. “For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not,” God declares. “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.”
Today’s Gospel reading has many contexts, but pairing it with this reading from Isaiah makes the context of idol worship all the more profound. Tiberius Caesar ruled an idol-worshiping empire by the time of this episode, the second in what would be a long line of emperors who were either deified after their demise or during their own lifetimes by themselves. The coin itself with the image of an emperor combined false idolship with the worship of money. Furthermore, forced worship of the caesars in Jewish synagogues (among other things) would precipitate the later revolt in Jerusalem that destroyed the second temple and exiled the Israelites/Judeans from the city.
That parallel plays out in what is perhaps the most famous test between Jesus and the temple leadership. Jesus sees that the Pharisees and the Herodians want to destroy Him, and start off by buttering Him up with soft words that they do not believe in the slightest. Rather than ask Jesus a question about God’s law or the prophets, they try to entrap Him either into collaboration or rebellion, either of which would carry the penalty of death. On top of that, they use a device that practically jumps right out of Isaiah 44 — a coin made of metal taken from the earth and fashioned by men, who then treat it as an idol to be worshipped rather than simply a tool for trade.
In short, the Pharisees and Herodians offer a bizarre attempt to get around Jesus’ clear authoritative teachings by invoking Roman authority, with all of its idolatry and oppression. This foreshadows what will happen in the Passion, when the temple leadership exploits Roman authority by casting Jesus as not just a heretic but a dangerous rebel to Caesar.
Jesus responds by dismissing both the Pharisees as “hypocrites” and the icon for what it really is — a symbol of worldly idolatrous power that has no connection to salvation. Ignore the idols of others, Jesus teaches, and focus on loving the Lord and your neighbors as yourselves. Census taxes have nothing to do with God, Jesus teaches, and cooperating with them as part of the business of living has nothing to do with Him either.
That answer would have been particularly galling to the Herodians, who claimed privilege over the Temple while collaborating with the Romans as their vassals in Judea. They undoubtedly hoped to either frame Jesus as a tax rebel with the Romans, or get Him to endorse Herodian authority by encouraging cooperation with the Romans. Instead, they got neither — just a rebuke and a statement that their own attempts to set themselves up as idols of a sort were for naught.
If there is no God other than the Lord, then the strutting pomposity of caesars and Herodians matters not in this world. Neither do the other idols of this world, whether it be coin, crowns, cars, or celebrity. All of those come and go in due time; they are not eternal, and they are not intrinsically meaningful at all except for the meaning we give them. And the meaning we give them, when we turn them into idols, steals the glory, honor, and worship that is rightly due to the Lord.
Render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, including the knowledge that caesars come and go just like all the rest of us. Render unto the material things of this world what is due them, too — with the knowledge of Him who placed them here for our use. Render unto all things the understanding of their purpose and utility, but reserve your worship for the one Lord who gave all to us and points us to the way home. We cannot find our way there if we continue to confuse the work of our own hands for the Lord, and He wants us to find that path — even when, as He says to Cyrus, we know him not at times.
You can’t use Brad to drive there, not even with a Caesar coin to buy some gas.
The front page image is “The Tribute Money” by Peter Paul Rubens, c 1612. On display at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
“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.