Year A : 16 October 2011
Today’s gospel reading reports
on a discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees
and the Herodians. Unlike the scribes, who were
a profession, the Pharisees were a religious movement
(like Opus Dei or the Focolari). They stressed
the need to keep all the rules and commandments
like the need for ritual purity before eating,
paying tithes (religious tax), keeping Sabbath,
observing marriage laws. Meals in common, prayer,
influencing and converting others, respect for
tradition as well as the Law were of great importance
to them. The Herodians were supporters of the
dynasty of Herod the Great, at this time led by
Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee. Since the Herods
held power because of the support of the Roman
emperor, the Herodians would have supported paying
the taxes Rome demanded. The Pharisees were not
openly hostile to Rome, but no doubt there were
nationalists among their members who were less
The tax at issue was a poll
tax to be paid in Roman currency‘on the head of’
every man, woman and slave between the ages of
twelve or fourteen and sixty-five. At the time
of Jesus the tax amounted to one denarius, which
was the equivalent of a full day’s wage for a
labourer. The denarius most in circulation then
bore the image of Roman emperor Tiberius, inscribed
(in Latin): “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the
divine Augustus, high priest.” Those who put the
question to Jesus had no difficulty producing
the coin requested. This particular group of Pharisees
are ‘hypocrites’ because the coin shows they have
already made their decision about the taxin actual
fact, and because they wish to set a trap, and
not to seek guidance or help.
If Jesus opposes paying the
tax, the Herodians will ensure the Roman officials
get to hear it. If he accepts that the tax be
paid, the Pharisees will make sure nationalists
learn that he is no Messiah but a collaborator.
Either way he is in trouble.Jesus does not answer
the question as to whether to accept or resist
Roman rule. The argument turns on whose head is
on the coin. Since it is Caesar’s head, then it
is Caesar’s coinage to begin with, and Jesus deftly
turns it into a challenge to seek what God seeks.
Caesar is in fact the power in the land, but the
essential lies elsewhere. As in the case of Cyrus
in the first reading, all power is in the hands
of God. Caesar’s coin claims he is a god, but
that is the way to idolatry. Earthly power passes
but the Kingdom of God remains and grows through
the good news put into action.
• “We know that you are an
honest man and teach the way of God in an honest
way, and that you are not afraid of anyone,
because a man’s position means nothing to you.
Tell us your opinion, then.” How do I react
to compliments paid to me by another? Do I think
he/ she is looking for something from me? If
I reject the compliment, am I saying that this
other person is telling me lies?
• On the other hand, how do
I feel about paying a compliment to another?
On a job well done? To a young person who has
managed to do something, maybe after a bit of
a struggle? Do I take other people and their
efforts for granted?
• How comfortable am I when
speaking in an honest and truthful way at home?
To my neighbours? To those who are considered
to have a position in society?
• A coin is rarely in itself
worth the amount that is stamped on its front
or back as its value. It is valuable only because
it shows the authority by which it was issued
and which guarantees that it is an acceptable
means of exchange. It is a symbol and a promise,
even if we know that no one will go to the government
and demand 50 pence worth of silver or a pound’s
worth of gold—even if we could see what we would
receive. It is all a bit like ourselves really,
perhaps not worth much in ourselves but stamped
with a guarantee at Baptism and in our lives
the promise and evidence of what is on offer.
• “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”.
Am I better at taking from government what I
can get than at giving what I should?
• Originally the word ‘hypocrite’ meant ‘an
actor in the theatre’, ‘one who plays a part’,
and from there it came to mean ‘a pretender’,
‘one who falsely professes to be virtuous’.
Should I ask God to show me where in my life
that might apply to me?
• We can choose between God
and Caesar. The reading also asks us to think
about our freedom of choice and how we use it.