October 16, 2011: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
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.” (Matthew 22:15-21)
Pharisees were considered the doctors of the Law and were strict about following rabbinic tradition. The name Pharisee literally meant “to separate.” Some refused to eat with non-Pharisees for fear of being contaminated by food not rendered ritually clean. These leaders had refused to accept Jesus’ teaching, although they fake flattering when first addressing him. The census tax they are referring to was a Roman tax that went directly to the Emperor. It was levied on every man, ages 14-65 and every woman, ages 12-65 who lived in the imperial provinces. The denarius (Roman coin) to which they were referring had the head of the emperor on it which meant that Jews used it in ordinary commercial transactions but it would not be admitted into the temple. The Pharisees knew that the Jews were not in support of the tax so if Jesus answered that they had to pay it, the Jewish popular would be angry with Jesus. If he answered that they didn’t need to pay it, Jesus would make himself an enemy of the government. Jesus answers the question by stating that the Jews had obligations to both; however, their obligation to the emperor was limited (by physical money) and what they owed to God (their belief and actions) were unlimited.
What was important to Jesus in this story was a person’s heart – his or her intent. The Pharisees weren’t sincere with their questions. They lived their lives by 613 commandments and if someone broke one, it was a serious offense. Jesus came to have a relationship with Israel. Later in Matthew (22:37), Jesus says that the two most important commandments are to love God with your heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. He concludes, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” This week, let’s focus on these two promises for ourselves and others. Everything else will fall into place if we do.