Matthew 22:15-21, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Is it lawful to pay census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus said yes, the hierarchs would charge him with blasphemy, punishable by stoning. Only God was king! If he said no, they’d rat him out to the Romans who could charge him with treason, also punishable by death. So, Jesus asked, “Kaninong mukha ba ang nakalimbag sa pera?” “Sa hari,” they answered, falling into his trap. “Eh, ‘di kanya ‘yan. Pagmumukha pala n’ya ang nand’yan sa pera eh. ‘Eh ‘di siya may-ari n’yan. Isoli n’yo sa kanya.” I could actually hear a follow-up question which Jesus didn’t ask, but whose answer would’ve been quite telling: “Eh, ‘jan sa isip at puso ninyo, kaninong mukha ang nakalimbag ‘jan?” Which would be another of saying, “Who owns you?”
Maybe we can compare the census tax to our Dolomite Beach today. It was a waste of hard-earned money, Jews were pretty sure. It was frivolous, absolutely no return of investment, useless, and pathetic. At a time of social strife, people’s money could’ve been better spent for people. Oh, the Jews hated with a passion the census tax and whom it represented, hating it all the more because they couldn’t do anything about it. Every day, Jews saw Caesar’s big head embossed on their hard-won denarius coins—his big head that matched his huge ego; his huge ego that belied his gigantic incompetence, fecklessness, &and failure of governance. When they turned the coins over, they read: pontifex maximus; literally, “greatest priest!” The original pontifex maximus was the highest-ranking priest who served as adviser to the emperor. But eventually, the emperor entitled himself to that honor. As pontifex maximus, he performed the sacred rites to the gods, offered sacrifices, and bridged humanity with the deities; pontifex, meaning, “bridge-builder.” You can imagine how the Jews snorted at seeing that every day. They who had to suffer through this Dolomite Beach of a census tax such that Caesar was anything but a bridge to God. No, he was a curse to Jewish life. Him and his taxes. But lest they forget, the Roman emperor’s image and likeness was everywhere: on their money, in mosaics, statues, bas-reliefs, frescoes. Caesar’s presence was inescapable; or, more exactly, his absent presence.
“We become what we love and whom we love shapes what we become,” St Clare of Assisi. We know that to be true, don’t we, sisters and brothers? We become whom we love. Unfortunately, the opposite can also be true. We can also become whom we hate, especially when we keep hating them even only in our minds. That’s why we hear of the abused becoming an abuser, the oppressed becoming an oppressor, the victim becoming the victimizer. Jesus’ counter-question is still very timely, sisters and brothers. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Unless we restrain ourselves from constantly seeing images of people we love to hate, we gradually become them. We assimilate the character we so reject in them. I learned this the hard way, and still learning it. “Hurt people hurt people,” so goes a very old saying, strangely worded but very true. We hurt others because we ourselves have been hurt. And we will keep hurting them when we keep allowing ourselves to hate-think people who hurt us.
In today’s Gospel, it’s easy to see how the temple hierarchs who hated Caesar and everything about him had turned into whom they hated. These Caesar-haters weren’t very different from Caesar anymore: they were elitist, self-referential; they were socially deaf, selectively blind; they were conniving & murderous. What the hierarchs hated about Caesar, Jesus found also in them. So, more than Caesar would ever know, his image and likeness was not just on things. It was in people, too.
Did Jesus have his share of disturbing thoughts and feelings about the government, the temple culture, the hierarchs? I’m sure he did. After all, he was—and still is—fully human, not just fully divine. He thought like us and felt like us, and still does. I know that sounds far-fetched, but that’s what it means for our Savior to be fully human as well as fully divine, sisters and brothers. The critical difference, though, is that Jesus didn’t likely allow himself to free-fall into hate-thinking his enemies, or obsessing over society’s ills. There were more important people in his lives than his adversaries. And because of this, there were much more important things to do. The sick needed to be healed, the possessed waited to be freed, tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners needed bringing back around. Jesus was never going to be an absent presence like Caesar and the hierarchs. So, he logged off Facebook, so to speak, and got up from his keyboard and got busy. That was why he didn’t turn into a Caesar or a hierarch. He got busy thinking of, being with, and ministering to real people with real needs and were living real life and dying real deaths. If Jesus were to mint his entire life into coins, they would have the faces of people on them. That was how much they were worth to him. He would consider himself “owned” by people who needed him the most.
If you and I were to coin our life these past seven months of the pandemic, sisters and brothers—and if all our thoughts, all our feelings, and all our preoccupations would go into minting that coin, whose image would Jesus likely see on it? Whose image owns us? How much would we be worth? And most importantly, for whom were we mostly spent?