The Pharisees sent their disciples to Jesus with the Herodians asking...
“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" Knowing their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax." Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?" They replied, "Caesar's." At that he said to them, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
Sometimes we forget the context of these stories because of the way the liturgical year uses scripture. I mean, I know I do, and I live with these readings as much as anyone I know. The story of the encounter between Jesus and the representatives of the Pharisees takes place between what we call today “Palm Sunday,” that is, the day Jesus made his symbolic parade on a beast of burden into Jerusalem, and the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus. Along with the parables of the vineyard owner, the two sons, and the wicked tenants, this passage and the rest of the gospel of Matthew which we hear between now and the end of the year take place during “holy week.” We lose sight of that, don’t we, because for us “holy week” was back in the spring. We place John the Baptist in our imagination in the time before Jesus because we hear about him in the gospels mostly during Advent, before Christmas, but in fact John was the same age as Jesus, if we are to believe Luke’s gospel and the story of Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth, John’s mother. The only Advent gospel that takes place before the birth of the Lord is the gospel of the fourth Sunday of Advent. Maybe John was just a fast starter, or Jesus a late bloomer. When Jesus comes on the scene, John has already plowed the field ahead of him, and the forces of the status quo dealt with John in a way that foreshadowed how they would deal with Jesus.
I know that I’ve heard the passage above used as a proof text for good citizenship, that Jesus was telling the Pharisees that the answer to their question was to split up your allegiance, give Caesar your worldly side, and give God your spiritual side. But the context of this story, its placement during Holy Week, after the entry in Jerusalem for Passover and the “cleansing of the temple,” requires that we see it differently.
Jesus’s relentless preaching of the reign of God as essentially different from the reign of Caesar and the kingdoms of this world require that we see this differently. John Dominic Crossan, in his engaging book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem (co-written with Marcus Borg), helps us see it more persuasively. Jesus outs his interrogators by making them show the Roman coin, which many pious Jews would not even keep on their persons, because it contained a “graven image” of the emperor, another god, contravening the Torah. He asks “Whose coin? Whose picture?” It is they who have to acknowledge the name of the god who is not Abba. Jesus does not answer their question, he gives his famous non-answer, “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s.” But what is Caesar’s? What is God’s? As Crossan and Borg point out, the land of Israel belongs to God, and the people of Israel are only its tenants (Lev. 25:23). In fact, Psalm 24 puts it, “The Lord’s are the earth and its fullness, the world, and all who dwell therein.” Crossan and Borg thus conclude, “What belongs to Caesar? The implication is, nothing.” (page 65)
But to me it has been important to remember that Jesus is not implying that a violent revolution has to take place. In fact, he says quite the opposite, warning that violence begets violence, and that those who live by the sword will die by it. The God who is not like Caesar is a God who invites, welcomes, lives in solidarity, gives life. Opting out of the reign of Caesar and its ways of threat and violence has to mean also opting in to the reign of God for it to be effective and have meaning. We can’t just drop out, we have to drop in to another way, the Way, Jesus.
Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? We don’t have to. See what I mean? I’m so acclimated to speaking in the language of force, coercion, and victory that my own speech is peppered with imperatives. The invitation is to turn around. Take a look at our lives and the way things are going. Look at the rest of the world and see how things are going. Are we happy suffering? Are we happy with the suffering that our insouciance and neglect and violence are causing other people? There’s another way, another road. All we have to do is listen to the gospel, and start walking on it. It sounds so simple, but it’s rarely been tried.
In the meantime, we keep singing, trying to be convinced enough to move.
Our music for Sunday:
Gathering: Psalm 23, by Tom Conry, (OCP.) Tom’s song captures the essence of today’s scripture for me, “God alone may lead my spirit.” The God who is shepherd may lead my spirit, and not the god who is general, emperor, judge, or avenger.
Psalm 96: Glory! Honor! (antiphon 2, with Psalm for Christmas Midnight by Rory Cooney (GIA)) You can download this alternate refrain from my website's "Freebies and Betas" page here.
Preparation: Let Us Go to the Altar of God by Rory Cooney (WLP). I’ve written about this song before; it simply uses the image of gathering at the table of the Lord as a place of solidarity, refuge, and hope in a world that is full of violence and enmity.
Communion: How Can I Keep from Singing, though it's harder to use this pre-1960s version, stripped of the political overtones added by Pete Seeger and others. I may reprint the revisionist text in the worship aid, or not. I wrote about my ambivalence, and the history of this song, in a blog post a few weeks ago. If you missed it, you can read it here.
Or: I Say Yes/Digo Sí, Señor, by Donna Peña (GIA). Donna’s cogent signature line in this song, “Like a politician, inevitably, I say yes, my Lord,” is one reason I chose this song for the day, but also because the one who says yes to God has a lot of good times and bad times ahead, always depending on the Lord’s word to be truthful.
Recessional: We Will Serve the Lord by Rory Cooney (OCP). Over the years, I think I may have used this song of mine, and it’s far from perfect, believe me, more than any other one. It tries to identify solidarity in covenant as the antidote for the desire for wealth, pleasure, and power, and the name of the covenant is Jesus Christ, and him crucified.