This is the first of three attempts by two very different political groups to trap Jesus. Normally, they would be each other’s enemy but here they are in an alliance against Jesus.
The Pharisees were anti-Roman, opposed to their country being part of and controlled by the Roman Empire. The Herodians were supporters of Herod, a puppet King installed by the Romans who, naturally, were pro-Roman.
On the issue of paying taxes to the Romans, the Pharisees opposed it while the Herodians, naturally, accepted it. Now we hear of these two groups colluding to ask Jesus: ‘is it lawful to pay this poll or census tax or not?’ If Jesus says ’yes’, he will be branded a traitor to the Jewish cause of independence and will make him unpopular with the people who find the tax burdensome. If he says ‘no’, he will be accused of promoting rebellion, as the Romans regarded refusal to pay the poll tax as tantamount to rebellion. (In 6AD a revolt against the tax, led by a Judas of Galilee, was brutally crushed and Judas and his sons were crucified.) So the poll tax issue was fraught with danger.
The tax question was put to Jesus while he was within the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. There only coins of the Jewish currency could be used – for instance, for purchasing animals for sacrifice. When asked about the tax, Jesus asks his questioners to show him a denarius, the special Roman coin that had to be used to pay the tax. When they did so, he exposes their hypocrisy. For any Jewish person who was faithful to the Law of Moses would not be carrying a Roman coin with the image of the head of the emperor on it (who claimed to be divine). So, Jesus says, you’ve already settled for yourselves the question of relating to the Roman Empire and its economy; you’ve answered your own question – if you did not accept the tax you would not be using the Roman currency. So ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’ but then he adds ‘and to God what belongs to God’.
Jesus does not mean by this that there are some things in life which belong to the State (in this case Caesar) and some others to God. He means that whatever our obligations to the State, they all stand under the Sovereignty of God … as is expressed in the First Reading when Cyrus is reminded that there is a greater Power than his.
The statement ‘give back to Caesar …’ offers no neat solution to the problem of Church and State relations. A legitimate State has rights and good citizens, acting for the common good respect those rights, including the need to pay tax. The problem arises when the State is not legitimate and when it seeks to do something which is opposed to natural justice or against the will of the people.
However, for conscientious Christians there may come a time when they feel they must answer to God rather than to the State – we can think of those courageous people who stood up to Nazism, like Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer or St Maximilian Kolbe, for which they suffered torture and death. Likewise, St Oscar Romero in South America or our own Catholic martyrs who refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the Church.
While Jesus gives us a principle – that everything belongs to God but that the State has certain rights – it has to be lived out in situations that are not always clear. Christians and the Church itself must often settle to live with uncertainty and do the best we can when civil law clashes with what we feel to be right or just.
So what does Our Lord’s teaching ask of us?
The Scripture commentator Fr Dennis Hamm SJ says this:
We live in a culture that easily divides the world into three parts—one part (as much as I myself can get) for me and mine; another part (as little as possible) for Caesar; and, oh yes, a third part (as much as is left over) for God. Jesus would remind us that as creatures made in God’s image, we are to use taxes as a tool for seeing that the goods of the earth are used to meet the needs of all.
While we might nod our heads in agreement with this principle, it will not be a popular when the time comes for the government to raise taxes in order to pay for the massive borrowing now required to protect people and jobs in this pandemic …
Holy Name, Jesmond
18 October 2020