Twenty-ninth Sunday In Ordinary Time
Confrontations in Jerusalem continue between Jesus and the religious authorities. We have three versions of the confrontation or argument or debate over whether or not a pious Jew should pay tribute (taxes) to Caesar (the Roman government then ruling most of the Middle East). Mark’s version is probably the original, since Mark wrote his gospel about 70 A.D., fifteen or more years before Luke and Matthew. Both Luke and Matthew use the Gospel of Mark for much, though not all, of their material. They copy, change, delete, and add according to the oral and written traditions they received and/or researched, and according to the needs of their own Christian Communities. Matthew begins his version of the story, “The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in his speaking. They sent their disciples to him with the Herodians, etc.”
As noted above, Matthew adopts and adapts the story from Mark’s version. Mark wrote, “And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians.” Luke, also using Mark, and also making a change somewhat different from that of Matthew. He writes, “And they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said so as to deliver him up to the authorities, etc.” Who are “they”? The context of both Mark and Luke make it quite clear that the culprits are the chief priests, the high priestly families who opposed Jesus in his time and opposed the early Christian movement until the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. by the Roman army. When Matthew composes his gospel in the mid-eighties there are no longer any active chief priests because the temple was no more, and members of the high priestly families had been assassinated during the siege of Jerusalem.
Some great scribes of the Pharisee persuasion became the main opposition to the Christian movement. They defended Judaism against those they considered heretics – Christians, for example. Whenever Matthew can do so, he demonizes the Pharisees. Although Mark wrote that they sent the Pharisees, and Luke makes it clear from the context that the culprits are the chief priests who do the sending, Matthew’s alteration of the tradition paints the Pharisees as the chief actors attempting to trap Jesus into saying something that would get him into trouble. Should there be any doubt of Matthew’s negative attitude toward these great, learned scribes, read Matthew’s seven curses against “scribes and Pharisees” in Matthew 23. The chief struggle between Matthew’s Christian Community and the scribes of Judaism was over converts, as Matthew makes clear in 23:15, the second of seven curses. Not all Pharisees nor all scribes opposed the Christians. St. Paul, even after his conversion, was proud of being a Pharisee.
Who are the Herodians? It’s not quite clear why Mark drew them into the picture at all. Matthew kept them in the story, but Luke omits them. They were the hangers-on of the House of Herod.
Herod the Great, rebuilder of the temple of the Lord, builder also of heathen temples, began Herodian rule by appointment of the Roman Senate in 39 B.C. He gained his kingly throne by 37 B.C. His sons and descendants ruled various parts of the founder’s kingdom at least until 100 A.D. Their part in this story about taxes may be based on the role of Herod Antipas in the murder of John the Baptizer and his desire to kill Jesus, as we read in Luke 13:31. The Herodian party could serve their homicidal master well, if they could report that Jesus advised people not to pay taxes to Rome.
So what is the question? First a bit of flattery, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful, and that you truly teach the way of God, and that you are not concerned about anyone’s opinion, since a man’s status does not influence you.” That introduction should be enough to win anyone to the flatterer’s side. “What is your opinion? Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Mark writes that Jesus recognized their hypocrisy – meaning that they pretended to be sincere. Not good enough for Matthew. He changes Marks “hypocrisy” to “malice.” Jesus asks bluntly in Mark’s version, “Why are you testing me?” Matthew’s version, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Jesus continues, “Show me the money for the tax.” They showed him a current Roman coin, a denarius. Jesus is a lot smarter than his questioners. His question to them is a profoundly loaded question, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They were supposedly pious Jews and yet, contrary to a major commandment, they were carrying on themselves a coin with a graven image. They’d been had by this peasant preacher and healer from Galilee.
We may imagine their sheepish demeanor, when they answered, “Caesar’s.” Jesus’ final answer, “Render therefore to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God.” This answer is dangerously loaded far beyond first appearances. On one side of the denarius in Jesus’ time was the image of a woman holding a branch symbolic of peace. Under the seated woman the inscription, PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, “chief priest” of the Roman State religion, thus already smacking of idolatry. Worse on the other side: an image of the current Caesar, Tiberius. Under his image (but in Latin): Caesar Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” Thus the denarius proclaimed Caesar Augustus (died 14 A.D.) as god, and Tiberius as son of god. What was dangerous about Jesus’ final answer? He dared to distinguish between Caesar and God – implicitly but boldly denying the divinity of the emperors. As far as Matthew’s catechetical intent: Jesus allowed Christians to pay taxes to the Roman government, even though by Matthew’s time, that same government had been their persecutor.