TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR A
“The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.”
In today’s Gospel, the tense exchange of questions and challenges between Jesus and the Pharisees continues. The Pharisees, after having listened to the parables of Jesus about the kingdom of God, go their way. Jesus used these parables to challenge the Pharisees and, in the process, reveal their hypocrisy. Despite having listened to the lessons emanating from the parables, they still clung on to their malicious and hypocritical ways. The challenging and provocative parables left the Pharisees with resentment. They went off in silence with a prearranged plan, plotting how to entrap Jesus in his speech. This verse underscores that listening does not always produce positive results.
The Pharisees have listened to the words of Jesus, to his parables about the kingdom of God, but those words bounced back like water on stone. They greatly perturbed the Pharisees, generating stress and nervousness: this is the fruit of “non-listening” and rejection of the word of God. The Pharisees, without haste, explored their point of view without having welcomed Jesus’ perspective. They displayed a total rejection of the challenging word of God. In fact, their condemnation of Jesus’ piercing words was growing during their listening to the parables. This is the word of God: it illumines, provides solace, help, and instils peace if is it welcomed and concretely lived and, as such, it becomes an impenetrable wall which trounces all forms of malice.
“The Pharisees sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying:” The Pharisees act in the dark, as it were. They seduce their disciples and the Herodians into ganging up on Jesus. The Pharisees were at pains to defend their point of view, entangled in their own narrow opinion. They were fearful of changing their impious ideas and renouncing their ungodly plans. “Non-listening” and rejection of the word of God, in addition to creating negative energies in us, generate abusing the bearers of the good news and making them amplifiers of our distress.
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.” The disciples of the Pharisees affirm that Jesus is truthful and does not regard a person’s status. In fact, the original Greek text is closer to the following: Jesus does not look at the appearances of others. Interestingly, this “heartfelt” praise was far removed from the reality of the Pharisees and their disciples: the truth, impartiality, and God himself. If they were truthful people, if they were impartial, if they lived according to the precepts of God, they would have accepted or engaged an opinion different to theirs, they would have been illumined and welcoming.
“Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Now they ask Jesus a seemingly innocuous and unbiased question, thinking they would occasion a knockout. Paying taxes to Caesar was hefty for everyone: people paid for services which hardly materialised and years of mismanagement of public money led those affected to view taxes as legalised theft. This question was meant to entrap Jesus so that they could accuse him of rebelling against the Roman power. Instead
“Jesus, knowing their malice, 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.”
Jesus does not pussyfoot around the issue; he cuts to the chase. He calls them hypocrites. He shows them the Roman coin and asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Since the coin bears Caesar’s image, Jesus concludes: “Repay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” In fact, a translation closer to the Greek text is “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus does not say “give” but “render.” Indeed, we render that which does not belong to us.
Jesus goes beyond the entrapment of these scoundrels: he exposes them by revealing the truth of their impoverished spiritual life. He does not stoop to their level: demonstrating with Caesar’s coin, he reminds them to rediscover the image of God embedded in them – an image which, through their hypocrisy, has been disfigured. Friends, to render to God what belongs to God is our Christian vocation. We are called to rediscover the image of God imprinted in us which reminds us that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters.