Homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Poor Jesus found himself in quite the pickle in our Gospel passage today. The Jewish teachers maintained that tribute should not be paid to a foreign occupying power, so to say “yes” on the question of taxation would upset them and lay Jesus vulnerable to charges of false and anti-Jewish teaching. But of course, the Roman occupiers demanded taxation from their subjects, so the Jewish leaders would not dare say such things in public. As such, for Jesus to say “no” on paying taxation would land him in hot water with the Romans and leave him vulnerable to potentially lethal punishment from them. Jesus recognises the trap being set for him, and is able to answer in a way that not only avoids giving any ammunition to either side, but which also makes a very profound point for those with ears to hear.
He says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” On the one hand, he’s making a point about the relative unimportance of money. It’s a small piece of metal with Caesar’s face on it – the value we give it is relatively arbitrary, for as we know, the most important things in life cannot be bought and sold with money.
And on a deeper level, Jesus can also be seen as making an important point about where our primary loyalties lie. As Dorothy Day famously said, if we give to God everything that belongs to God, there’s nothing left over for Caesar. Everything we receive is a gift from God, and as such He has a claim over our entire life, including our financial priorities. So everything we do—every decision we make—must be made with an eye to pleasing God.
Think about this – the coin in the Gospel has the image and inscription of Caesar on it. What, on the other hand, has the image and inscription of God on it, and therefore is to be given to God? We’re told at the very beginning of the Bible: you and I! We are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore we belong to God and we are called to give ourselves to God. And through our baptism we have come into an even more profound relationship with God. Saint Paul puts it this way, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20). So, we are stamped in the image and likeness of God, and we have been purchased by the blood of Christ. We belong to God and therefore we are to give ourselves to God.
Now, some people have seen in this Gospel passage a kind of political digression, a brief teaching by Jesus on the need for separation between church and state. But historically speaking, the concept of the separation of church and state was an idea that only really emerged in the 18th century, and which was about as far from first century Jewish thinking you could imagine.
The Jews believed as a matter of principle that all of life, public and private, should be subject to the rule of God. They longed for the return of the King: the return of God’s rule, not Roman rule, and the emergence of a new King in the line of David, who would enter into Jerusalem triumphantly, defeat the enemies of God’s Law, and establish God’s Kingdom once and for all, over all people.
It may be tempting to think that Jesus rejected all of this. But if we pay close attention to the Gospels, we can see that Jesus did no such thing – on the contrary, he fulfilled Israel’s expectations for a King on an even higher level.
Today’s Gospel takes place just after that moment when Jesus has shown himself to be this new King, when the hopes of Israel have been answered. It takes place just after Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem, just as the prophets Isaiah and Zachariah foretold. He is acclaimed as the Messiah, the promised King, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And what does Jesus do next? Exactly what the King was expected to do: he defeats God’s enemies. He goes straight to the temple, drives out the moneychangers, condemns its desecration, foretells its purification, and prophesises its restoration as the new temple of his Mystical Body.
And in today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus answer the trick question of the Pharisees. He turns the question on his accusers, telling them, “show me the coin,” inscribed with the idolatrous inscription, Tiberius Caesar, “son of the divine Augustus, and high priest of the gods”. Jesus rhetorically asks them whose blasphemous inscription is on the coin, and then he responds, “Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
Try to catch the irony in Jesus’ reply. His message all along has been that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent – give back to God everything he deserves. Caesar may claim absolute authority, and pretend that he is a god – be he is most assuredly not the Lord God. As our other readings today make clear, this is the point of today’s Gospel: God alone is King – he is the Lord and there is no other. And so, we are to give God what he deserves. To quote from today’s Psalm: “Give to the Lord, you families of nations, give to the Lord glory and praise; give to the Lord the glory due his name!”
Today’s Gospel this isn’t the last time we hear about Caesar in the Bible. At the time of Jesus’ trial, before Pontius Pilate, the religious authorities of Israel once again reject God as King.
As the Gospel of John says, “(when Pilate) said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your king!’ They cried out, ‘Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Do you want me to crucify your king?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king except Caesar.’ So in the end Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.” The same ones who tried to entrap him earlier with their trick question about Caesar’s coin, at the time of the true King’s triumph, say, we have no king but Caesar.
But it is precisely in Christ’s his Passion, when the hopes of Israel seem lost once again, that the reign of this new and eternal Kingdom is definitively revealed. On the cross, Jesus offers his life into his Father’s hands, defeating evil not by rebellion and violence but by obedience and love as he says, before he gives up his life, “it is finished.”
So, who is our king? Who is your king?
In a little over a month we will celebrate the end of the liturgical year with the feast of Christ the King. It’s not a random feast: it’s there at the end of the year because the full coming of the Kingdom of Christ—when almighty God will finally rule over all things at the end of time—is indeed the object of our hope.
This feast was begun in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, because so many countries were rejecting God’s authority and stiving to make their own rule absolute. As Pope Pius implored the world to learn, it is only when we let Christ reign over our whole lives—not just in our hearts but in our world as well—following his Law and his Truth, that we will have peace.
But Christ cannot reign in the world unless he first reigns in our hearts. Hearing this Gospel today, we should ask ourselves – am I giving to God all that he deserves? Am I giving him the first of my thoughts, of my time, of my labours, of my income? Am I thanking him for what I have? Am I turning to him when I am in need? Am I living for his glory? For his Kingdom? Or am I taking something else as my king, my lord, my god? Do I really mean it when I say, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done – not just some day in the future – but even now, today, on earth as it is in heaven?
For we can be sure – the Kingdom of God is coming, and his will shall be accomplished. So strive to be there when it does come, not confessing “we have no King but Caesar,” but instead proclaiming, “long live Christ the King!”