Lately, in Sundays Gospel passages we have been reflecting with the evangelist Matthew about the kingdom of God. Before writing todays passage, St. Matthew points out three parables emphasizing especially the negative attitude on the part of the Elders, Priests, Pharisees, etc. The leaders of Israel are precisely those who opposed the kingdom of God preached by Jesus and consequently misled the people. Being aware of Jesus criticism and recognizing themselves as the murderer tenants, the divided authorities of Israel formed a common front in order to compromise Jesus. It is amazing how history so often repeats itself. Their differences are forgotten and they band together while trying to condemn the very same Son of God, the one who brings them salvation. Their first attempt is narrated in todays Gospel and has to do with the political arena, with economic and religious overtones, a slippery area in which one can be easily pointed out and prosecuted by a party or another.
Pharisees and Herodians came together to challenge him: Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not? They apparently asked a very simple question about a real problem and at the same time a very well formulated trap. The truth of the matter was that regardless of the answer it seemed that there was no way to escape some kind of condemnation. If Jesus had said: Yes, it is lawful, the Pharisees who were present would have declared Him a false Messiah. He would have become a traitor to Israel, which had only God as king and who longed for a liberator Messiah. On the other hand, if he had said: No, it is not right, the Herodians who were present and were Roman collaborators would have accused him of treason before the Roman authorities and he would surely have been executed (as happened later). Therefore, the only way around the problem would have been to not answer the question or to respond with an evasive or vague answer.
Such an episode tells us first of all about Jesus Himself. He did not avoid the question; he answered by saying give to Caesar what is Caesars, but to God what is Gods. It is a short answer, but by no means evasive as it points out the very core of the problem being treated in the dialogue with the religious authorities. Even though being aware of the hypocrisy of those who plot against him, once more Jesus showed tenderness and care for those who were astray. As well, by giving them a wonderful teaching to think about, he proved that he was well above all those unimportant diatribes. It is another testimony of Jesus shrewdness and rare capacity in dealing with public controversies. Once more, Jesus speaks out freely and recognizes the earthly authorities received from God. However, above all, he emphasizes the importance of recognizing Gods place. The fact was that he proved to be what his opponents ironically portrayed him, a teacher, a truthful man who teaches Gods ways sincerely, somebody who above all looks for Gods will without compromising his life and mission out of human respect.
Secondly, the problem itself should be focused. The authorities of Israel tried to distract the conflicting religious dialogue by using political arguments and, by doing so, implicitly recognized that the only way to defeat Jesus was to get rid of him. Consequently, they did not look for the truth anymore, but rather they began searching for evidence to condemn him. Jesus once more focuses the real question on the core of the problem, the rejection of Gods plans of salvation and conversion.
It must be noted that in Israel the problem of paying taxes to the invader emperor, like they were already doing to the temple, had religious connotations. In Jesus times, taxes were a tribute paid to Rome, using the same money. At that time, the coins had the face of the emperor with the following inscription, recognizing the divine nature of the emperor, divus et pontifex maximus, that is, divine and maximus pontiff. Herodians accepted it and collaborated. However, for Pharisees and others who considered themselves pious, just the idea of having Roman coins or even looking at them at least was repugnant, and barely tolerated them as a minor evil. So should they pay taxes or not? Jesus clarified and deepened the argument by using a distinction in which God and worldly authorities were put at different levels.
By saying Give to Caesar what is Caesars and give to God what is Gods Jesus invites us to keep a balance. Caesar and God do not oppose each other, they are just on different levels. Christians are called upon to be responsible citizens and cooperate with authorities in building up a better and just society by trying to incorporate their Christian values into this human world. If they are successful, it will become a better world. And while doing so, do not create idols, but recognize God as the most precious and absolute value of all, and act accordingly.
Like many of our contemporaries, Israels religious leaders somehow used their faith (God) for their personal gains. Herodians tamed their faith by having rather practical views about religion and used it for their political and economic sake. Pious Pharisees as well, exaggerated their own laws and traditions, not leaving room for Gods plans of salvation, and willingly did not collaborate with others who did not share their creeds. In this way religion became a kind of tool to justify their beliefs and actions. Therefore, todays readings warn us about the danger of escapism on one hand, and sincretism on the other.
Sincretism, as it might appear in many new fashion movements like Newage, is a human made, tamed and mixed religion. It creates its idols for its own gains by supposing to know who God is, thus placing limits on Him, and ends up creating human gods. Jesus teaches Gods supremacy and omnipotence as the only absolute. Humans are not to decide how God has to act or to be. God is supreme, divine, mysterious, omnipotent. He is, and He must be worshiped above all, He is the only and the true God. The God of history, who reveals Himself when He likes and the way He likes, as He has shown already throughout Salvation History. He will always surprise our poor imagination with his love. By his divine Providence God guides all to Himself, faithful or not (1st reading). To him all glory and honor and praise must be given (psalm 96). Thereby we are invited to be always open and alert, to constantly look for His presence among us, His will, the way He wants us to follow Him. Let us not deceive ourselves by trying to tame Him, by creating our own religion in Gods name.
Escapism on the other hand, would be rather the irresponsible attitude of forgetting this world in the name of God. Jesus teaching points out the supremacy of God in our lives and stresses, as well, the commitment of religion in everyday life. Faith is not just something reduced to the private forum, to some ceremonies in church. Christian Faith incorporates the whole life of Christians, who fight to make this world a better world of justice and peace, bringing forth the Kingdom of God. Christian faith is not a mere theory but has the power to change human reality (1Thes. 1,5). Recognizing the supremacy of Gods kingship above all does not mean to escape from this world but rather, Christians are invited to cooperate with anyone and everyone (God and others, even though they might not be Christians) in the building up of a better society.
Finally I will like to illustrate through the following story what can happen if we forget God in our lives. I invite you to read it carefully and think about it.
A spider built his web in a barn, high among the rafters, where he started by spinning a long, thin thread attached to the end of one of the beams. With this thread still attached to him, the spider jumped off the beam and spun out more thread on the way down, until he reached the place he planned as the center of his web. From the center, he then spun out other threads like the spokes of a wheel, attaching each end of them to the walls and other places. Finally he had an exquisitely made web that helped him catch many fine fat flies. But he grew fat, and lazy, and vain. One day, while admiring the web he had spun, he noticed the long fine thread he had first spun from the top beam and said, "I wonder what that is for? I can't imagine why I ever put it there; it doesn't catch any flies." And so on a sudden impulse he broke it. But as a result the whole wonderful web collapsed. The spider had forgotten that the one thread, linked to the strongest beam above, supported the whole web.