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After Jesus made some scathing condemnations against the Pharisees in the controversy between them (Mt 21-23), the Pharisees continued to engage Jesus hoping to upend him. Today’s gospel (23:15-21) is the first of their three attempts (vv22-42).
At the outset, the malicious intent of the Pharisees is pronounced: “pagideuō” (παγιδεύω), a verb associated with the noun “pagis”, (παγισ), meaning “trap, snare”; thus, “to trap or snare, or entangle” Jesus in what he will say (v15). And they even conspired with an unlikely partner in the Herodians, a political rather than a religious party. The two groups recognize hypocritically but accurately Jesus’ integrity (v16). The dilemma posed regarding the Roman tax (known as a “head or poll tax” required of every man, woman, and slave between the ages of twelve and sixty-five amounting to a day’s wages, the price of living in and enjoying rights as a subject of the Roman Empire v17), would make an affirmative response to the question of payment offensive to religious Jews, in this case, the Pharisees. But it would represent no problem for the Herodians. A negative answer would label Jesus an insurrectionist, like the Zealots of his time, and would create difficulties for the Herodians who were anxious to maintain the status quo.
Jesus’ answer is carefully nuanced and elusive, understandable in light of the malice and hypocrisy of his questioners (v18). At the same time, it has its own logic. For benefits received from Caesar, payment is due (v21). Jesus does not set forth any political-religious theory (like what is called now separation of Church and state). He deflects the question as having nothing to do with the reign of God, his sole interest. This is a matter of temporalities and therefore outside of his purview, having nothing to do with his mission. If one uses roads or public facilities, then one pays for them. The role of civil authority is not questioned in the New Testament (Rom 13:1 – 7; 1 Pet 2:13 – 17), nor is it accorded any importance in God’s reign. Thus, Jesus moves away from the Caesar question and calls for a basic respect for God’s will (v21). The Pharisees have repeatedly tried to thwart Jesus as God’s emissary, conduct which merited some of Jesus’ harshest words (Mt 23:1 – 11). Here, it is not a question of God’s over-arching authority being shared with Caesar. The response to God must be total, not in any way divided. Questions of civil authority are secondary, even peripheral. In submitting totally to the sovereignty of God, the concerns of lesser authorities will be met. But allegiance to God must be seen as absolute.
The scriptures illustrate the relationship of both Israel and the early Church to civil governments. Those relations were sometimes positive, (cf first reading, Is 45:1, 4-6), and sometimes negative (1 Mac 1ff). In today’s gospel, Jesus’ answer is balanced and does not “tip the scale” in either direction. There is no reason why we Christians cannot be good citizens (or even good elected officials). Hopefully, we bring to the task a conscience formed in faith. For conscience remains the litmus test of all our behavior. All of us live in the human city, but we are always mindful of our primary citizenship in the city of God. May ‘repaying to God what belongs to God’ remain foremost in our lives. Amen.