29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
Tribute to Caesar
When hypocrisy sets a snare for honest people
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.
a) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Matthew 22:15-17: The question of the Pharisees and Herodians
Matthew 22:18-21: Jesus’ reply
b) A key to the reading:
Jesus comes from Galilee to Jerusalem for the annual feast of the Pasch. As he enters the city, he is acclaimed by the people (Mt 21:1-11). He immediately goes to the temple where he drives the vendors away (Mt 21:12-16). Although he stays in Jerusalem, he spends the nights outside the city and returns to the city in the morning (Mt 21:17). The situation is very tense. In his discussions with the authorities, the high priests, the elders and the Pharisees in Jerusalem, Jesus expresses himself in parables (Mt 21,23 a 22,14). They would like to get hold of him, but they are scared (Mt 21:45-46). This Sunday’s Gospel on the tribute due to Caesar (Mt 22,15-21) is situated within this general state of conflict between Jesus and the authorities.
15 Then the Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap him in what he said. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, together with some Herodians, to say, 'Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. 17 Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?' 18 But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied, 'You hypocrites! Why are you putting me to the test? 19 Show me the money you pay the tax with.' They handed him a denarius, 20 and he said, 'Whose portrait is this? Whose title?' 21 They replied, 'Caesar's.' Then he said to them, 'Very well, pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and God what belongs to God.'
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) Which part of the text touched you most? Why?
b) Which groups in power are getting ready to set a trap for Jesus? What kind of trap?
c) What did Jesus do to get out of the trap laid by the powerful?
d) For today, what does the saying: “Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and God what belongs to God” mean?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) The context of our text of the Gospel of Matthew:
As we were saying, the context of the Gospel of the 29th Sunday is the debate between Jesus and the authorities. It begins with the discussion with the priests and elders on the authority of Jesus (Mt 21:23-27). Then comes the parable of the two sons where Jesus denounces the hypocrisy of some groups (Mt 21:28-32). There follow two parables, one of the murderous wine growers (Mt 21:33-46) and another concerning those invited who refuse to attend the wedding feast (Mt 22:1-14). At this point in our text (Mt 22:15-22) enter the Pharisees and the Herodians who set a trap. They ask him about the tribute to be paid to the Romans. It was a vexed question that divided public opinion. At all costs they wanted to accuse Jesus and so lessen his influence over the people. Immediately the Sadducees begin to question him on the resurrection of the dead, another controversial question and cause of dissent between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (Mt 22:23-33). It all ends with a discussion on the greatest commandment of all (Mt 22:34-40) and the Messiah as son of David (Mt 22:41-45).
Like Jesus, the Christians of the communities in Syria and Palestine, for whom Matthew was writing his Gospel, were accused and questioned by the authorities, by other groups and by their neighbours who felt uncomfortable because of the witness of the disciples. When reading these episodes of conflict with the authorities, they felt comforted and encouraged to continue on their journey.
b) A commentary on the text:
Matthew 22:15-17: The question of the Pharisees and Herodians.
The Pharisees and Herodians were the local authorities who did not enjoy popular support in Galilee. They had decided that it was time to kill Jesus (Mt 12:14; Mc 3,6). Now, by order of the priests and elders, they want to know whether Jesus is in favour of or against paying tribute to the Romans. A deliberate question, full of malice! Under the guise of fidelity to the law of God, they seek reasons for accusing him. If Jesus were to say: “You must pay!” they would accuse him, together with the people, of being a friend of the Romans. Were he to say: “You must not pay!” they would accuse him, together with the Roman authorities, of being a subversive. A dead end!
Matthew 22:18-21a: Jesus’ reply: show me a coin.
Jesus is aware of their hypocrisy. In his reply, he wastes no time in useless discussion and goes directly to the heart of the question: “Whose portrait is this? Whose title?” They answer: “Caesar’s!”
Matthew 22:21b: Jesus’ conclusion
Jesus then draws the conclusion: “Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God!”. In fact, they already acknowledged Caesar’s authority. They already paid Caesar what belonged to Caesar since they used his money to buy and sell and even to pay the tribute to the Temple! Hence, the question was useless. Why ask something whose answer was clear in practice? They, who by their question pretended to be servants of God, were in fact forgetting the most important thing: they forgot to give God what belongs to God! What mattered to Jesus was that “they pay God what belongs to God”, that is, they mislead the people that they had lead away from God through their own fault, because through their teachings they prevented people from entering the Kingdom (Mt 23:13). Others say: “Pay God what belongs to God”, that is, practise justice and honesty according to the demands of the law of God, because by your hypocrisy your are denying God what is due to Him. The disciples must be aware of this! Because it was the hypocrisy of these Pharisees and Herodians that was blinding their eyes! (Mk 8:15).
c) A deepening: Levies, tributes, taxes and tithes:
In Jesus’ time, the people of Palestine paid very many levies, taxes, tributes, fines, contributions, donations and tithes. Some scholars calculate that half of a family’s income went to pay levies. Here is a list that gives an idea of all that the people paid in levies:
* Direct levies on properties and persons:
Levy on property (tributum soli). The taxation officers of the government checked on properties, production, the number of slaves and then fixed the amount to be paid. Periodically, new taxation amounts were set in accordance with census taken.
Levies on persons (tributum capitis). For the poor without land. This included women and men between the ages of 12 and 65 years. The levy on the workforce was 20% of the income of every individual.
* Indirect levies on various transactions:
Golden crown: Originally this was a gift to the emperor, but then became a compulsory levy. It was paid on special occasions such as feasts or visits of the emperor.
Salt levy: Salt was the emperor’s monopoly. The tribute was paid on salt for commercial use. For instance, salt used by fishermen to salt fish. That is the origin of the word “salary”.
Levy on buying and selling: For each commercial transaction there was a levy of 1%. It was the taxation officers who collected this money. For instance, to buy a slave they asked for 2%.
Levy on professional practice: For anything at all one needed a permit. For instance, a shoemaker in Palmira paid one denarius per month. One denarius was equivalent to a day’s salary. Even prostitutes had to pay.
Levy on the use of public utilities: Emperor Vespasian introduced a levy on the use of public baths in Rome. He used to say, “Money has no smell!”
* Other taxes and obligations:
Toll: This was a levy on the movement of merchandise, collected by Publicans. Toll was paid on the road. At certain points there were soldiers who forced those who were reluctant to pay.
Forced labour: Everyone could be forced to render some service to the State for five years, without remuneration. This is why Simon was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
Special subsidy for the armed forces: People were obliged to offer hospitality to soldiers. People also had to pay a certain amount of money for the nourishment and support of the troops.
* Levy for the Temple and for Cult:
Shekalim: This was the levy for the upkeep of the Temple.
Tithe: This was the levy for the upkeep of the priests. “Tithe” means the tenth part!
First fruits: This was the levy for the upkeep of the cult. That is, the first fruits of all land products.
6. Psalm 12
Against lying lips
Help, Yahweh! No one loyal is left,
the faithful have vanished from among the children of Adam.
Friend tells lies to friend, and, smooth-tongued,
speaks from an insincere heart.
May Yahweh cut away every smooth lip,
every boastful tongue,
those who say, 'In our tongue lies our strength,
our lips are our allies; who can master us?'
'For the poor who are plundered,
the needy who groan, now will I act,' says Yahweh,
'I will grant salvation to those who sigh for it.'
Yahweh's promises are promises unalloyed,
natural silver which comes from the earth seven times refined.
You, Yahweh, will watch over them,
you will protect them from that brood for ever.
The wicked will scatter in every direction,
as the height of depravity among the children of Adam.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practise the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.