October 16, 2011 - Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Is Jesus a Democrat or is he a Republican? Is he Conservative or Liberal? Is he a Communist, a Socialist, or a Capitalist? This is the question of the Pharisees in the Gospel today. They want to know what Jesus’ politics are. Politics in ancient Israel ranged from the zealots who wanted to kill every Roman soldier to the Sadducees who thought that the Romans were filthy Gentiles but thought they could work together, all things considered. Everybody hated the Romans, but the parties differed on how to deal with the fact that Israel was part of the Roman Empire.

The problem with the taxes were that they were used to pay the soldiers who were stationed in Israel. So the Israelites were actually paying to be subjugated. Further, some of the money went to pay for the official religion of Rome, the worship of Jupiter and Neptune and all that. There was no separation of Church and state back then. So the Israelites were actually subsidizing the idol-worship. Further, some of the money went to pay King Herod who was a foreigner that the Romans had propped up as the King of Israel, and he used the money to pay for a life involving almost all of the sins. Above all, paying a census tax allows the emperor to count the people of Israel, something only God is allowed to do.

So the people paid the taxes because if they did not the soldiers would step in and steal their property anyway. One way or another, the IRS was going to have its share. Not paying taxes was a sort of futile protest, like spitting at the wind. They paid the taxes, but it troubled all of them, since they were willingly participating in evil. Judas Maccabees would not have paid the taxes; he would have fought a war. King David would not have paid the taxes; he would have stood up to Goliath. Moses would not have paid the taxes; he would have sent plagues on all of Rome.

So representatives from two major political parties went to Jesus to see what his position would be. I think we Christians should note here that the Pharisee rabbis did not go themselves but sent their students. I wonder if this would have included the most famous Pharisee student of all: Saul of Tarsus. St. Paul never tells us whether he saw Jesus before the Resurrection, whether he ever spoke to Jesus before the day of his conversion, and maybe he had not arrived in Jerusalem yet or maybe he was just not in this group, but he might have been.

The Pharisees are so confident to send the students because they think that they have an airtight dilemma for Jesus. If he said, “Pay the taxes” the Pharisees would have called it proof that for all his high-minded ideas, he was no great leader of Israel either, but if he had said, “No, do not pay the taxes” the Herodians, those who supported King Herod would have had him arrested for encouraging people to break the law. The Pharisees think they have him trapped. He will now have to admit that he is no greater than any of them. He is not the Messiah who has come to free Israel. He will have to admit that he too is constrained by the limitations of society.

But he admits no such thing. He shows the Pharisees how limited their thinking had become. They thought that paying taxes gave them emperor power, but what gave him power was the fact that they chose to participate in the world that he ran. Jesus answer was more radical than the zealots: “Pay the taxes; it’s only money.” No one had thought of that. Everyone agreed with the emperor that money was of great value, so they had already bought into his system. If the emperor had taxed dirt, everyone would have gladly given him a pail of dirt every time he asked for one.

“When they heard this they were amazed, and, leaving him, went away.” Why did they go away? Their plan had been destroyed, but they ought to have realized that something greater was at stake here. All they can see is that they lost the debate, but they should have seen the wisdom and bowed down to worship.

I suppose that they realized they had lost the debate publicly, but were not actually convince. Since they were only students and not rabbis, they thought they had better cut their losses and retreat. The obvious rebuttal remained in their minds, and perhaps has formed in yours: “money is not worthless; money represents work and food and the necessities of life; money allows the Romans to persecute us; money enables all sorts of sins.” Jesus’ answer is clever, really clever, but is it truly wise?

Indeed it is. The coin had the image of Caesar, and so it belonged to Caesar. The economic system, the political system, the whole empire, all belonged to Caesar. What belongs to God? Well, what has the image of God stamped on it? We do. Each one of us was created in the image of God. Caesar can have the world and all the human structures built into the world, but we belong to God. If we do not choose to do evil, if we do not choose to give ourselves away to another Master, we will continue to belong to God.

So how does this all apply to us? Our government uses our tax dollars for abortion, for the death penalty, for wars, for many things that we would not choose to have our money pay for. Should we work within the structure of the government to change the laws, or should we give up on the government and consider it a lost cause?

The answer is both. We Christians should protest strongly the new rule that says that every employer must buy birth control for their employees. We should not just roll over while the government takes over Catholic hospitals and Catholic schools and Catholic adoption agencies and Catholic homeless shelters, imposing a warped and foolish morality on institutions that the Church built and which only continue functioning because of the work of Christians. The politicians do not want to serve the poor, but they want to force us to do it their way.

Politicians want to force the whole world to do things their way. The day is coming, indeed it is already here, when we are going to have to say: “You want our money? Take it. You want our buildings? Take them. You want our lives? Take them. The world is yours, if you can keep it, but you cannot have our selves. Those belong to God. We are not ours to give away. You can threaten. You can ostracize. You can do whatever you can do. We do not live in your kingdom. We are free citizens of the Kingdom of God.”

We must keep both mindsets active. There is a time to protest injustice, but we must never despair. Even if we cannot make the world just, that was never our primary task. Our real goal is to make ourselves just, if we can, with the help of God.