Power – Joel Liwanag, SJ

Matthew 22:15-21, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Have you ever been asked a trick question? Have you ever been pushed into a difficult situation wherein, as they say, you were damned if you do, damned if you don’t? How did you manage to escape from such trap? In today’s Gospel, Jesus is pushed into such a situation. Those who wished to bring him down, after giving their empty praises, asked him a seemingly simple question: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

To be able to understand why it was a trick question, it is important to keep in mind the socio-political context of Israel then. At that time, the Israelites were under Roman occupation. If Jesus answered “yes” to the question, saying that it was lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor, he could have easily been accused of disloyalty, of being a traitor to his own people. He would have then earned the ire of his fellow Israelites, who considered the Roman rule as a form of oppression. If, however, he answered “no” to the question, saying that it was unlawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he could have been accused of sedition, of disobedience to the Roman law. He could have then been reported to the Roman authorities.

Being in this difficult situation, Jesus uses his wit and turns the table around. He tells his detractors to take out a coin, and asks them whose image they see in the coin. When he is told that it is Caesar’s, he tells them, “Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” In Jesus’ cryptic answer he does not only escape from the trap that has been set for him. Through it we also get an insight into his perspective about human power.

First, when he says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus seems to give his implicit recognition of the legitimacy of human power. He acknowledges the reality that since we human beings live in community, we are subject to a social order, and part of this social order is having leaders who exercise their authority for the sake of the group. When used correctly, such power can bring forth much good.

In today’s first reading, we meet one such leader who brought forth much good to Israel. His name is Cyrus, king of Persia. Under King Cyrus, we see the end of a painful era in Israel’s history, the Babylonian exile. Under his reign, Israel is allowed to go back to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Indeed, he is one good example of a leader who exercised his authority for the good of the community.

I invite you now to remember some of the exemplary leaders we’ve had, in our world, in our country, in our community. How did they exercise their power? What good did they do for their constituents? How did they help those who were subject to their authority?

Bringing this closer to our own personal experience, perhaps we can also ask ourselves the same questions. We who are leaders in our own little way, in our workplaces, in institutions, in organizations, and even in our own families, how do we exercise our authority? How do we exercise our leadership? Are we able to bring forth good for those who depend on our leadership?

Secondly, apart from the recognition of human power, another lesson we learn from today’s Gospel has to do with the limits of this power. After saying “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus adds, “and give to God what belongs to God.” In a way, Jesus is making an important reminder. Yes, human leaders exercise authority, but in their exercise of such authority, they must not forget that they are not God.

The problem with some leaders that we have is that they think they are God. They see themselves as the ultimate power, no longer dependent on the power of God. This is a dangerous frame of mind. This way of thinking is what makes cruel dictators, heartless monarchs, abusive leaders.

When Jesus says “give to God what is God,” it is His way of saying, “recognize God as the supreme authority,” for indeed, there is nothing that does not belong to God. Everything that we have, everything that we possess, everything that we enjoy – all these belong to God. Yes, even the power exercised by human leaders, belongs to God. Such authority is only entrusted to those who have been called to hold it.

This is the message we hear in today’s first reading. Going back to King Cyrus, we know that He is not a believer. And yet, listen to what the Lord God tells him: “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not….”

Indeed, we should not let human power get into our heads. We have to constantly remind ourselves that such power is only entrusted to us. It does not belong to us. Ultimately, it belongs to the Lord, He who has supreme authority over all.

To end, perhaps we can reflect on the mistakes we’ve made in exercising power. Have there been moments when, in our exercise of leadership, we acted as if we were God, forgetting that we are not? In what ways have we abused the power that God has entrusted to us? In what ways have we misused the authority that has been given to us?

Jesus tells us, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God.” Yes, we have to recognize the authority of human power, but we must not forget that such power is always in the service of a higher power, the higher authority of God. Let us pray that all our leaders may keep these two important lessons in mind. Let us pray, too, for ourselves, that in our own little ways, as leaders in our families, in our workplaces, in our communities, we may exercise authority, always, in the service of those we lead, always in the service of God.

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