Often in the Gospel readings we hear about Pharisees. Many of them are good and faithful people who study the scriptures and try to live the covenant with God the best they can. However, another group of Pharisees feels threatened by Jesus. They do not like that he keeps teaching them about the Kingdom of God. It bothers them that people listen to Jesus' teachings instead of to them. They take their eyes off the Kingdom of God. They forget that whatever helps to build the Kingdom is good; whatever serves to break down the Kingdom should be discarded. They forget that they all belong to the same side, they all serve the One True God. So they challenge Jesus, waiting for him to make a misstep, wanting him to do something wrong.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
The group of Pharisees bring with them some of King Herod's people. (This is not the same King Herod who tried to kill Jesus when he was a baby; this is his grown-up nephew.) Although Herod is Jewish and not Roman, he has some power given to him by the Romans who have taken over Israel. Herod loves money. He and his people are rich because Herod has ties to the emperor back in Rome.
These two groups of people begin by trying to flatter Jesus. (Do they actually think that he will fall for that? Do they think he will not realize that they are up to something nasty?) Then they ask Jesus a question about taxes. It seems like a straight-forward question. How is this a trap?
The scriptures give some guidance about taxes. The scriptures direct the faithful to give money to the Temple because the priests there do not get paid while serving the One True God. The Pharisees might expect Jesus to answer no, the faithful do not need to pay money to the Romans because Romans do not follow the One True God. Many of Jesus' followers would love to hear this. They believe that Jesus is the Messiah who will lead a revolution to make Israel free again, to be the land promised to them by God. But if Jesus proclaims that taxes to the Romans are not lawful, Herod's people will run to Herod, who will tattle to the emperor, and Jesus will get arrested.
So Jesus cannot say no.
If Jesus wants to avoid trouble with the Romans, and says, yes, pay the taxes, he steps into the other part of the trap. First, he will look like he loves money as much as Herod does. But more than that, the scriptures say that there is only One True God, yet the Roman emperor wants people to worship him. The scriptures also say not to make an image of God, because you might worship the image instead of God, and the emperor has put his image on all these coins. If Jesus says paying taxes is lawful he will show all his followers that he is not a good Jewish man.
So Jesus cannot say yes.
He is trapped.
Or so they think.
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”
(Notice Jesus is not the one who loves money. He does not even have any.)
And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
How does Jesus avoid the trap?
In one sense, it seems like he has separated the two groups.
"Herod's people, relax, the taxes will keep coming."
"You Pharisees, focus on God, and by the way, stop trying to trap me."
But that does not seem entirely satisfactory, does it? How can God be put into a group? Is not God above all groups?
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s...”
Perhaps this is Jesus' way of saying, do not worry so much about it. Taxes, created by a human, are neither bad nor good. Certainly, no one likes to pay them, and some people get rich from collecting taxes from the poor. But at the same time, governments can use taxes to improve life. The crowd only has to look down at the roads they stand on, the roads the Romans have been building using their taxes. The crowd does not know it now, but those roads will last for millennia.
All things can be used to build the Kingdom of God. From this, St. Ignatius learned and taught that things created by humans are themselves not bad or good, lawful or unlawful. However, what we choose to do with them can be. Do we use the things we have to build the Kingdom or do we use them to break it down? “Give therefore to the emperor...” If the emperor desires taxes, pay them. Pass the choice to him. Now he must decide whether to build the Kingdom or not.
But what about the things that are God's? The coins stamped with the emperor's face belong to the emperor. He marks them as his own. But what has God's image stamped on it?
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27)
We know that each of us has been created in God's image. In Baptism, God marks as God's own. One after the other, the priest, our parents, and our godparents imprint the sign of Jesus' cross on our forehead. We belong to God.
“Give...to God the things that are God’s.”
How will we give ourselves to God? We can ask ourselves this question each morning. What will we do today, what choices will we make, how will we build the Kingdom? We belong to God...how will we offer ourselves to God today?
We are given one way to do this solemnly–to make of ourselves a sacred offering. A moment arrives in the Mass, after we recall together Jesus' complete offering of himself in the bread and in the wine. To the world, to us, to God–he gives his body in the bread, and his life poured out in the wine. And he says,
Do this in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:24)
Give all of yourselves, he says. I have room in this chalice for you.
The priest takes the bread and the wine–the wine that embraces a little drop of water, so lowly and ordinary like us–and he lifts them high, offering them to God:
Through him, and with him, and in him,
O God, almighty Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honour is yours,
for ever and ever.
Then we offer ourselves together with Jesus, by singing joyfully to God,