29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
God became man in a country conquered and occupied by the Romans.
The Pharisees were devoted to the Law of Moses, they opposed the Roman rulers of Israel and regarded King Herod and his family as collaborators with the Romans. The Herodians supported King Herod, they worked happily with the Romans and were not very strict about the law of Moses. But these two opposing groups band together to trap Jesus.
If Jesus says it is lawful to pay tax to Caesar the Roman Emperor then he identifies himself with the Herodians and turns his back on the ordinary Jewish people who hate the Romans and long to be free. If he says it is unlawful then he sets himself up as an enemy of the Roman State, identifying himself with the violent bands of anti-roman Zealots, what we would call terrorists now. From a purely political point of view the question is unanswerable. It’s a bit like the modern question should I pay taxes to the British Government which uses them for amongst other things funding abortions.
Jesus’ answer reveals his divine wisdom. First: whose head is on the coin? It is Caesar. If you are part of society then there will be things in that society that are wrong, but you are already in a small way compromised. My Taxes pay for abortions but also for genuine health care, for sanitation for public order. It’s a compromise forced by the nature of human society. We can opt out of society in a sense, we could become religious professing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, living a life enclosed in a monastery, and that is an important and vital vocation. But we may have a vocation, and most of you do, to be part of society to live in the world and that means doing the best you can to reform and improve society from within. It may be something small; don’t support shops or companies that sell or promote what is wrong. Further up the scale, with wisdom and prudence take a stand at work, refuse to compromise, don’t be silent in the face of sin, speak up for what is right. At the top of the scale enter politics, become a local councillor, become a member of parliament and vote for change.
But more important than all this. Render to God what is God’s. The coin, society bears the image of Caesar, it is his. But we bear the image of God, we are his and that image is perfected in Baptism by Jesus. Before we start worrying about the state of society, Jesus says worry about the state of your soul. First and foremost give God his due. Obey the commandments, imitate Christ in our lives, give witness in all we say and do, love God and love our neighbour, this is the path to holiness, to sanctity, and in the end it is Saints who bring about lasting change to society and the world.
Jesus, the word of God, transcends the political. Those living in the world are free to find different ways to solve problems in society, we can support different political parties and different economic and social programmes. But always God’s rights, revealed in Christ and his Church must come first.