Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Is 45:1, 4-6, Ps 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10, 1 Thes 1:1-5b, Mt 22:15-21
Today’s readings remind us that God is really the one in charge of the world, that He’s the one who controls everything, and even those who don’t know Him or even declare that they are against Him, are in fact under His power and control.
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah expresses this idea beautifully as God tells Cyrus, the pagan king of Persians, “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. . . . It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me.” Although Cyrus doesn’t know God, it is through him that God will restore His people and reveal His greatness.
In the Psalm, too, we’re reminded to give the Lord glory and honor, “for great is the LORD and highly to be praised; awesome is he, beyond all gods. For all the gods of the nations are things of nought, but the LORD made the heavens.”
This theme of power and control also reappears in today’s Gospel, which presents us with well-known incident in Christ’s life wherein those who are against Jesus attempt to trap Him. Recall that the Jews were under Roman rule; Israel was a conquered nation, and her citizens had to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and his officials. That tax was a way of showing that they were subjects, and that they were under the rule of another nation. For this reason, the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians try to trap Jesus by asking Him about paying taxes to Caesar.
The question is a tricky one, trickier than it first appears, because it seems like there’s no right answer: if Christ says not to pay, He’ll be labeled a rebel and an enemy of the Romans. If He says that they should pay, He’ll be labeled a sell-out, and a collaborator of the conquerors. While there’s a lot we could say, we can consider three details that can be useful for our meditation: first, the fact that Jesus doesn’t have a coin on Him, second, the coin itself, and thirdly, that what has Caesar’s image on it belongs to him.
First, it calls our attention that Jesus doesn’t have a coin on Him. In fact, when Mark recounts this event in his Gospel, Jesus requests that they bring a denarius to look. However, it’s phrased in such a way in Greek that it implies Christ hasn’t even seen such a coin before; He’s never laid eyes on one. It seems that Christ isn’t very big on money; He doesn’t put a lot of stock in it, and it certainly isn’t anything that He puts His faith and His trust in.
Yet, there’s another good reason why He doesn’t have that coin with Him or in His pocket: the coins not only had the emperor’s image, but also an inscription that proclaimed him more than just a ruler: the coins declared that he was a religious figure worthy of veneration. More observant Jews maintained that even just having a coin was to commit idolatry. Of course, none of that bothers Christ’s accusers (who include Pharisees, the most observant Jews); they are so anxious to convict Him that they made sure to have on one hand, even if it is idolatry.
The hypocrisy of Christ’s accusers is seen even more clearly when we consider the coin itself, our second point. On one hand, the coin itself was basically worthless; modern scholars place its value around 17 cents – essentially nothing. Furthermore, to placate the Jews, the Romans had even issued denarius coins without the offensive image and inscription. Simply to prove a point, Christ’s accusers are willing to commit idolatry with a 17 cent coin.
This leads us to Christ’s well-nuanced and beautiful reply: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” What belongs to Caesar is what has Caesar’s image and inscription on it. If it has his face on it, it’s his, and he can have it back. This raises the question: what is it, then, that belongs to God, because that’s what we must give Him.
If we follow Jesus’s train of thought, that what belongs to Caesar is what has Caesar’s image and inscription on it, then what has God’s image on it, and His inscription, belongs to Him.
And this is the key point: we are made in God’s image and likeness. We have His image, particularly in our immortal soul, which is an image of God’s eternity. We also have His law inscribed in our hearts, the instructions that tell us how to get back to Him as we run our course through life. We belong to Him, and we must give ourselves, our lives, our everything, to Him, because we must “repay to God what belongs to God.” On His part, God gives us everything that we need to return to Him; we only have to cooperate.
Christ’s words remind us that there are two different economies at work in the world, two very different ways of seeing things; the Pharisees are concerned with dollars and cents, with money and finances. This is certainly one economy. In the Catechism, though, we read that “[the] ‘divine economy’ refers to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life,” especially those saving acts of His Passion [CCC, 236]. This economic language, we could say, penetrates the mystery of our redemption. In fact, the word “redemption” itself comes from the Latin re, meaning again or back, and emere, to buy; Christ, in redeeming us, bought us back from Satan to whom we had sold ourselves through sin.
At the Crucifixion, Jesus cries out, “It is finished.” In Greek, the word is “Τετέλεσται” “tetelestai,” meaning “finished” or even “paid in full,” a word that was written on receipts in Greek times. The cost of this exchange is beyond our understanding.
Yet, for this infinite love, the ultimate exchange, Judas was paid a mere 30 silver pieces. How many times do we sell ourselves away from something even less!
Here we see two different economies at work: we have the divine economy, which works with grace and mercy, humiliations and sufferings, as its currency, and the human economy, which is content with dollars and cents, pleasures and everything fleeting. The two systems don’t even operate on the same level, and they place different prices on the same items. When we lose sight of the divine economy, of the real prices of things, we settle for the human value of things, one that reduces the supernatural and elevates the natural.
This is precisely what the Pharisees do in today’s Gospel; to make a point, they are willing to sell themselves and their souls. They give that money a power it shouldn’t have, but Christ reminds them that the things of this world are meant only to get us to heaven. The Pharisees are so concerned with dollars and cents, with money and finances, that they forget what is really important. Money can be given to a ruler, but not one’s soul. That belongs to God alone.
Today we can ask ourselves about our awareness of being made in God’s image. Is there some place in our lives we refuse to give God what is His? What is our denarius, the thing that we allow to take the place of God in our lives?
Let us ask, through the intercession of Mary, Queen of Heaven, for the grace to give ourselves entirely to God, rendering unto Him what is His.