A reflection on Mt 22:15-21
By Fr. Ron
Undoubtedly you know someone who has dual citizenship: citizens of two countries and passport holder in both. Perhaps they have both a Filipino and American passport; or Australian and Filipino. It seems to be quite common today.
A few years ago I was on a flight from Los Angeles to Manila. The couple sitting behind me was discussing which passport they were going to present at immigration. They were comparing the advantages and disadvantages of each option. I realized that there are some definite advantages of having dual citizenship. You get “the best of both worlds.”
In reality, from a faith perspective, we all have dual citizenship. That’s the point of today’s gospel passage. We are citizens of two worlds.
As the story is told, Jesus is being set up. As frequently happens, there is a conspiracy to try and trap him. In this case, two unlikely groups are joining forces to conspire against him. The Pharisees take the lead. They are a religious group of Jews who are opposed to the Roman occupation of their ancestral land. However, the Herodians are a political group who have great loyalty to the Roman establishment, especially Herod the current king of Judea.
Together, they try to trap him by asking a no-win question. They suppose that the question they are asking will make him take sides, pleasing one group and angering the other: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
If Jesus says yes, then the religious Jews who are experiencing the occupation and domination of the Romans will be offended. Jesus will appear to be disloyal to all the patriarchs and prophets who have come before him. He will be a traitor to his own people.
If Jesus says no, the Herodians will label him an insurrectionist. He could even be charged with treason for subverting Roman law. They think they have him under a barrel: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
What does Jesus do? He turns the table. He asks them to show him the coin used to pay the tax. By producing the coin they have entrapped themselves. It shows that they are part of Caesar’s empire. They are using the coins that bear his image
He answers their question with a question: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” When they reply “Caesar’s,” he tells them: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
In other words, Jesus is teaching that we are citizens of two worlds. We are citizens of this world, of our own nation. But we are also citizens of God’s kingdom. That means we have rights and responsibilities in both.
Therefore, Christians have obligations in both realms. We not only have an obligation to participate in the life of the Church and support its mission in the world; we also have an obligation to participate in the political life of the nation and obey its legitimate laws. That include responsible voting and making our voices heard in the decision making process of legislators and other government leaders. Some Christians will try to excuse themselves of their political responsibilities by citing today’s verses.
Today’s gospel has also been misused to justify a separation of Church and state. Some people have tried to use this response of Jesus to say that Church leaders and ordinary Christians should not become involved in the political process. This is a misreading or misinterpretation of Jesus’ words
The Church needs to lend its voice to the political process, especially the debates that have a moral content. Politicians try to tell bishops, priests and lay Catholics to stay out of politics. But so many of the issues facing one’s country and world have a moral content. Take for example the desire to have capital punishment for certain crimes. Another important contemporary issue is care for our common home, the earth. Likewise, Catholics need to be advocates for the sacredness and dignity of human life. There are so many more relevant issues.
It is not only the bishops and priests who are called to be vocal on political issues with moral content. All Catholics have a responsibility to promote Catholic teaching in the legislative and political process. They need to make their voices heard by speaking out and making their views known to their elected leaders at all levels of government.
Yes, we are citizens of two worlds. We have responsibilities in each. Yet they are not separate worlds. We are the link between these two worlds. Our faith ought to have an impact on our daily lives. Participating in the political process is one way that we can do that.