Reflection for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
If someone asks you ‘Have you stopped stealing?’ you cannot give a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer without implicating yourself. The question presupposes that you have stolen before. Because it is ‘loaded’ with questionable presumptions, such questions are faulted as fallacies in logic.
Like a loaded gun, such loaded questions are dangerous. The way to approach them, therefore, is not to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but to challenge the assumptions it makes.
The Pharisees posed such a question to Jesus in today’s Gospel when they asked him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.
To situate the question in context, the Pharisees advocate strict adherence to the letters of the Law while Jesus, on the contrary, stands for realising the spirit of the Law which is living in friendship with God. Thus, Jesus and the Pharisees are always at loggerheads and they seek every opportunity to discredit him. Their malice is clear in the delegation they sent to question Jesus – a mixture of their disciples and some Herodians.
While the Pharisees were conservative Jewish nationalists totally opposed to the Roman colonial rule under Emperor Caesar, the Herodians were a more liberal Jewish sect supportive of King Herod who is loyal to Rome; they count on the possible benefits of collaborating with Rome.
Both sides, therefore, hated each other but in Jesus, they have a common enemy. The nationalistic Pharisees oppose taxes to the oppressive Roman colonial government. So, in the presence of the pro-Roman Herodians, they maliciously ask Jesus if it is right to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor.
If Jesus says ‘no’, he would have pleased the Pharisees but both camps will report him to the colonial authorities for sedition and inciting opposition. If he says ‘yes’ he might please the Herodians but would lose credibility with Jewish patriots who will consider him a traitor.
Jesus deftly evades the wicked trap with his famous retort: ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’. Before we consider the implication of that response, this encounter helps to highlight the meanness of some religious people, which has persisted over time.
Rather than be open to dialogue people try to destroy those with a different religious opinion. Such hatred is seen not just between religions but within religions and denominations.
Growing up in south-eastern Nigeria, I know of a mocking catechism that asks ‘would Protestants ever go to heaven’ and the answer ‘yes, but it would be extremely difficult’.
At denominational level, conservative and liberal Catholics are pouring venoms on each other on the social and print media. But you can’t serve the God of love by hating people. In the very act of doing that, you undermine the God you are claiming to proclaim.
This is the problem with the Pharisees and Jesus sees through their malice. He knows that they are not questioning sincerely about the church and state relations so he doesn’t play the game. A sarcastic response to religious haters is therefore allowed!
Yet, Jesus wasn’t merely being cynical or craftily responding to evade a trap. His response is equally pertinent for church and state relations. It makes clear that the state has a legitimate sphere of influence.
We all, for instance, largely depend on the state for social services and infrastructure: water, electricity, education, healthcare, roads and other welfare services. The sustenance and improvement of these services also depend largely on the cooperation and support of the community. And we do this mostly through paying taxes.
Hence, taxes are not just a necessary evil. In a just administration, they are our contribution to making the services we take for granted available. In a just tax system, we also help to spread more evenly the wealth of the community so that each one has access to what they need for a life of human dignity.
A state is therefore deserving of loyalty to the extent that it meets her obligations to her citizens. That is the import of Jesus’ statement that Caesar should be ‘given back’ his due; in other words, a government should get, not a blind or absolute loyalty, but what it deserves.
The principle of justice does not demand that people give their loyalty and support to a corrupt or self-serving government. In fact, people can only give back their frustrations to such governments.
In the United States, both blacks and whites violated the segregation laws operated in many states. In South Africa’s apartheid system, many Christians were forced to violate the immoral laws of their government.
From the standpoint of the Gospel, Christians may have to stand in strong opposition to the authorities on certain issues for instance when they promote anti-life policies including abortion and assisted suicide (euthanasia).
Ultimately, therefore, civil authorities are subject to the higher demands of truth and justice, and the inviolable dignity of the person. In other words, they are subject to God to whom everything belongs including Caesar.
Where our loyalties to the civil authorities and to God are in harmony there will be no conflict. But wherever people’s rights and dignity are undermined, conflict is inevitable. Yet, such conflicts are not always bad; through creative conflict, the flawed kingdoms that men build can, in time, become the Kingdom of God.