Our gospel this Sunday is a continuation of what we heard last Sunday. Jesus was in the Temple grounds and He had just infuriated the Pharisees and the Scribes by telling the parable about a king who had invited his guests to the wedding feast of his son and they would not come. The Pharisees and the Scribes knew exactly that the parable was directed towards them for their obstinacy in not accepting Jesus to be the Promised Messiah. They were so enraged that they now plotted to find a way to get rid of Jesus or to discredit Him. For this reason, they devised this plan to try and trap Him with a question. The plot was well orchestrated and the question craftily formulated… “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caeser or not?” It was a close-ended question – a question that could only produce a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for an answer.
Anyone of those answers would have discredited Jesus straightaway and that was their intent. If Jesus had said ‘yes’, then Jesus would have been seen as a friend of the Romans who at that time had laid exorbitant taxes on the people and therefore the Jewish people would have rejected Him outrightly because they wanted to establish a theocratic state. If He had said ‘no’, then those sent to trap Jesus would have reported to the Romans that Jesus was a rebel who resisted the rules by telling the people not to pay taxes and they would have taken Him away. But Jesus was able to see through them and knew exactly what their plan had been. What started out as a plan to discredit Jesus ended up with those who were sent to trap Jesus were discredited when Jesus right away calls them hypocrites because of their malicious intent.
However, Jesus turns this into an opportunity to teach about the kingdom that He came to establish. Some people have come to think that when Jesus replied, ‘give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God’ as making a distinction between the sacred and the secular or the Church and the State. To think that Jesus was dividing life into two spheres, the secular and the sacred could be a misreading of the text. In fact, what actually takes place is that Jesus does not answer the question at all. Jesus craftily evaded answering the trap question, using the very words of those sent to trap Him and just stated what they had just said about to whom the coin belongs… if it belongs to Caesar, give it back to Caesar. But then, herein comes His own reflection and agenda when He adds, ‘and give God whatever belongs to God.’
The intent of Jesus now was to teach them about the Kingdom. The kingdom that He had come to establish was not to rival the political rule that existed. In fact, this kingdom does not even have any marked-out boundary. The kingdom and rule of God that Jesus came to establish were intended to happen in the hearts of all those who heard Him and were transformed by His words from within. By this transformation, they will be empowered to go forth and make a difference to humanity. I like the description of the author Leo Tolstoy in his book ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ when he describes the meaning of life where he writes, “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity by contributing to the establishment of the kingdom of God, which can only be done by the recognition and profession of the truth by every man.”
Primarily, the kingdom that Jesus came to establish was based on the premise of truth and that is why Jesus presents Himself as the Way, Truth and Life. Truthfulness stems from the desire to be authentic and that is why Jesus called those who had come to trap Him, hypocrites because their purpose was not to discover the truth but hoping to deceive themselves into believing that Jesus was not the Promised Messiah. We live in a world where the truth can so easily be manipulated for various reasons. However, the kingdom of God demands authenticity and truthfulness in every sphere of our lives – be it sacred or secular, Church or State.
Though the demand for truthfulness is non-negotiable in this Kingdom, it must have charity at its core. Pope Benedict in his opening words to the encyclical Caritas in veritate (2009) writes, “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (#1) and this is ‘give to God what belongs to God’. Living in truth and authenticity so that the Kingdom continues to manifest the visible signs of the presence of Jesus. May we always stand on the side of truth and be inspired by the love to love one another.
– 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)