Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Mt 22:17)
This episode from Matthew’s gospel is a familiar one to us, narrating the malicious trap of the Pharisees and Herodians. Jesus responds cleverly, not only escaping the verbal snare set before him, but turning the encounter back on his opponents to emphasize the ultimate allegiance that is due to God: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21).
The nature of the query posed to Jesus can be instructive. Even when we do not bear the malice described in the story, we may still perpetuate the question’s fatal flaw. Attempting to catch Jesus in an unwinnable arrangement of allegiances, the Pharisees and Herodians reveal their own lack of faithfulness through the very premise of the question. They regard God as a sovereign among other sovereigns, as one ruler among many vying for the people’s loyalty. Jesus cannot and will not answer on the terms he has been given; to do so would be to acquiesce to a dangerous and wrongheaded framework.
Allegiance to God – or more properly, belonging to God – is incommensurate with any other allegiances or belongings we may have. It is a relationship altogether unique and so we rely on analogies of a loving parent and a just sovereign. In the end, however, God cannot be compared to any other. And so in the First Reading we are reminded, “I am the LORD and there is no other” (Is 45:5). This is not merely a call for us to give pride of place to God in our lives. Rather, it insists that we recognize that what God is, is utterly different from any other being or relationship that we can experience. God is incommensurate.
Intellectually, it is not so hard to reject this mistake of putting God on par with other masters and other allegiances. In the way we live out our lives, the mistake is easier to make.
The Pharisees and Herodians were baiting Jesus with regard to the political life of the day. In our own times, the cacophony of political cues and directives can become deafening in election season. As we sit a month away from Election Day and a year away from another one, more anticipated than the first, it is always a sobering reminder to know that God will not be appearing on the ballot. God is neither sovereign among other sovereigns nor candidate among other candidates.
In a recent roundtable on this blog, my colleagues have aptly identified how our faith and moral convictions are deeply involved in political prudential judgments. And at the same time, our Catholic faith and morality do not immediately dictate all courses of action. The ongoing work of discerning how to live out our belonging to God as members of a political community is intended to be ongoing work. Re-released this month, the U.S. Bishops’ letter on faithful citizenship is meant to prompt reflection on the ongoing work of discernment and formation of conscience. Our belonging to God is supposed to infuse all we decide and all we do, but we ought not to expect that that belonging can be conceived in the same terms as our political allegiances.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the response given by Jesus to the Pharisees and Herodians is all that remains undetermined. While Jesus has brilliantly cut through the trap set before him, he does not define exactly what it is that “belongs to Caesar” and what it is that “belongs to God.” Much work has been left to us and our communities of faith in order to understand what it means to belong to God in the midst of a political community. As a starting point, we can know that it is neither irrelevant nor commensurate.