October 18, 2020 Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

There is a story about a bishop being asked out of the blue at a press conference: “Your Excellency, what do you think of the local night clubs?” the Bishop taken by surprise replied: “I don’t know. I’ve never been to a night club.” The next day the newspaper headline ran: “Bishop denies visiting local night clubs.”

In one sense, what the headline stated was true; but it was certainly untruthful in terms of what it implied. Facts were manipulated.

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about the impact of the social and other media to manipulate people through the manipulation of facts. And, for our part, we can collude with this manipulation by seeking out news sources simply because they support our opinions, even if at some level we suspect that the ethical standards of the journalism within are questionable.

There is nothing particularly new in matters such as fake news and the manipulation of facts. Indeed, today’s Gospel gives us a good example: using a clever question to try to entrap Jesus into saying things that could then be manipulated and used against him.

We are told that the Pharisees wish to entangle Jesus in his talk. That the Pharisees join with their traditional opponents, the Herodians, indicates how desperately both groups wish to eliminate Jesus.

They ask Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” In itself this is a legitimate question. It raises important moral, political, and religious issues. But it was a question difficult to answer without personal cost given the troubled political circumstances of the time.

To pay taxes to Caesar was in effect to support the Romans who had conquered Israel and who were keeping Israel in a form of captivity by installing a puppet regime supported by the Herodians. If Jesus spoke in favor of paying the tax, the Pharisees, much opposed to Roman occupation and in favor of strict Jewish observance, could then charge Jesus with being disloyal to his own Jewish people and their hopes of national independence, as well as being unfaithful to Jewish practice which forbade the fashioning of graven images in the likeness of any created thing – Roman coins had images of Caesar on them. On the other hand, if Jesus opposed paying the tax, the Herodians could then accuse Jesus of instigating revolt against the ruling powers.

The Pharisees and Herodians are trying to manipulate Jesus into saying something that can be used against him. But Jesus meets cleverness with cleverness. He asks them to show him the money they use for the Temple tax. The fact that they have Roman coins to hand suggests that they tolerate, at least to some extent, objects with graven images on them; and it might also suggest that they pay taxes to Caesar, or at least that they collaborate to some degree with the system. This is a clever move on Jesus’s part.

But Jesus’s response – ‘Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ – is even more clever. It is not merely an evasive answer to avoid being trapped by his enemies. It also subtly raises some profound issues. In any case, Jesus’s answer in no way succumbs to the manipulation of his listeners in response to their attempt to manipulate him. Jesus both defends himself and challenges them to reflect on important matters.

Jesus asks whose image is on the coin. Jesus’s opponent reply: ‘Caesar’s’. On the one hand, as a coin imprinted with the image and likeness of the emperor, it in some sense belongs to the emperor; but simply by virtue of being a human being, Caesar (like every other human being) is made in the image and likeness of God, and thus even Caesar is subject to the One True God – in that sense he belongs to God. So Jesus’s question about whose image is on the coin is more complex than it at first appears, and thus so is Jesus statement: ‘Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.

Yet despite the fact that Jesus was able to communicate much to his opponents, but subtly and in an indirect fashion, I cannot help but think that Jesus would have loved to have been able to have had an open and truthful discussion with the Pharisees and the Herodians about the important matters they raised. But such open discussion was not possible due to manipulation and destructive intent on their part.

As Christians we are called to be men and women of truthfulness in general and to have conviction in the truth revealed in Christ Jesus and lived out in the Church. In this are both called to be people who act according to the dynamics and principles of truthfulness, which are at odds with manipulation, and we are called to have conviction in the power of truth itself.

We need to constantly re-examine our faith, we need to sit down and study the Gospels, we need to spend more and more time in prayer and thought, and we need to join in discussions on religious matters so that we are properly equipped to proclaim and explain our faith in Christ. We need to get that Bible off the top shelf and dust it down and read it.

When Jesus demands of the Pharisees if they give to God what belongs to God he is also asking us the very same question. We ought to ask ourselves if we have given the time and the thought and the application needed to bring us to a true appreciation of his action in the world sufficient to enable us to explain ourselves to those with no knowledge of God.

One great example of this was the great theologian and philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas. Famously, he began most of his theological and philosophical enquiries by canvassing opposing views to his own and showing not only that these positions could be countered but that sometimes they could also be learned from. He was able both to correct and to learn because he trusted in the power of truth. Manipulation was not needed; manipulation did not even enter into the picture.

As a partly spiritual being man is destined to be a citizen of a spiritual eternal kingdom, and while on this earth he has the duty and the possibility of preparing himself for citizenship in that kingdom. And since this kingdom is of a higher and much more important nature, man’s primary aim in life must be to reach that kingdom. He must, in other words, find out and fulfill his duties toward God; he must “give to God what is God’s.”

This dual citizenship of man and the dual obligations that arise from it are the common knowledge of all from the natural law but are made more explicit still in divine revelation of which today’s answer, given by Christ to the Pharisees, is a precise and perfect resume. We have duties to God and duties to our country and the fulfillment of the latter is part of the fulfillment of the former.

We Christians have no doubts as to our obligations under these two headings. We fulfill our duties to God by being faithful, loyal, active members of the spiritual kingdom, the Church, which Christ established on earth in order to lead us to our eternal kingdom. We fulfill our duties to our country by loyally obeying the just laws of the State, by paying all lawful taxes, and by contributing our share, whenever called on, toward the common good.