Matthew 22;15-21, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21).
This verse has launched many heated discussions and tirades about the relationship between religion and the state. But I do not think Jesus set out to pronounce something definitive about faith and politics that day when the Pharisees and Herodians approached him. Let us go deeper into the text and learn from what it has to offer.
Our Gospel today begins with the Pharisees plotting how “they might entrap Jesus in speech” (Matthew22:15). The Pharisees and the supporters of Herod converge on and circle around our Lord. They try to disguise their intentions with compliments then pounce on him with their question, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” It is a question asked not in search of an answer but a query sprung to set up a mistake.
When we ourselves ask questions, is it because we are seeking the truth? Or do we ask questions to further our own agenda, corner people, expose their lack of knowledge, and shame them? Do we ask questions to be enlightened or to put people in a bad light?
“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answers yes, the Pharisees will denounce him as disloyal to the Jewish nation, as a coward who has bowed down to Roman domination. If Jesus answers no, then the Herodians will report him to Rome as a dissident and as a troublemaker who must be arrested. Yes or no – whatever Jesus says, he is caught.
Yes or no – very few questions of significance can be answered by an outright yes or no. Even a seemingly simple question like “Is an apple red?” cannot be answered with just a yes or no. Is an apple red? Well, it depends… it depends on the kind of apple it is. If it is a Fuji apple, it is actually more pink and yellow than red. But even if it is a “red” Washington apple, it is not just red. Look closely and you will see some streaks of really dark red that are almost black. If the apple has not been handled well, it can have splotches of brown. If we are really seeking the truth, we should be prepared for answers that go beyond yes or no. In pursuing the truth, we should be ready for complicated answers, nuances, and the need for clarification. The truth cannot be fully contained in a slogan or a sound bite.
To answer the question of the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus tells them, “Show me the coin that pays the census tax” (Matthew 22:19). They do, and with this, Jesus turns the tables on them. Their possession of a Roman coin proves they have already bought into the Roman system. Jesus is justified in calling them hypocrites (Matthew 22:18).
The Pharisees and Herodians were unmasked, and if we are really seeking the truth, we must be prepared to be unmasked ourselves. In pursuing the truth, we must be ready to face our own hypocrisies, the times when we were not all that truthful, the times when we hindered the truth, the times when we questioned others while holding ourselves above being questioned.
If we really want to see the truth, we have to first admit that we have our own blind spots and that we will never have perfect vision. No one person or one group can ever possess the whole truth while we all see with earthly eyes.
One final point about seeking the truth: Last week, we buried a Jesuit whose death caught many of us by surprise. I did not always agree with this Jesuit; many times, our positions were diametrically opposed. But one thing I always admired about him was how he could disagree with you but still be kind – not kind of condescending, not just kind of tolerant, but kind – period. He went beyond just “agreeing to disagree.” His was a kindness born out of respect and trust that though you may see things differently, both of you were in honest search of something better for all concerned. As we journey towards truth, though we may end up on opposite ends of the road, can we try walking with kindness?
In this age of fake news and alternative facts, how can we come closer to the truth? Perhaps we can try to be more sincere and purify our motivations. Perhaps we can try to be more courageous and go beyond just defending our positions to really consider the convictions of others. Perhaps we can we try to be more patient and spend more time wrestling with ideas that are too big for tweets. Perhaps we can we try to be humbler and admit our own shortcomings and faults? Perhaps we should also ask: How can we come closer to the truth together? Perhaps we can we try to be kinder to each other.