Lectionary: 145, Matthew 22: 15-21
You would think that the Pharisees and their allies would have figured out by this point that they are not going to be able to trap Jesus in his words. After many attempts in widely varying situations they have yet to succeed, but they keep trying. This time the scenario involves paying taxes: the disciples of the Pharisees figured that if Jesus responded to them that it was unlawful to pay the census tax, then he would be liable to arrest by the Roman civil authorities. On the other hand if he said that it was legitimate to pay the tax, he would come off as an apologist for the Roman occupiers and a man unfamiliar with the laws of his own people.
As much as people tried to trick our Lord in his own day, and at times try to trap Catholics today in our words as we explain and share our beliefs, it’s not going to happen. This is the real point of the encounter with Jesus’ opponents—there is a natural coherence about our Catholic faith and practices that defies worldly logic and “gotcha” attempts, and that becomes clear to us when we make a whole-hearted decision to follow in the footsteps of Christ. It is what the Church from its earliest days has called the “analogy of faith”. On the other hand, when we decide consciously or unconsciously to live in a self-centered way Jesus’ teaching may indeed seem like something that can be pinned down and shown to be perhaps noble but ultimately outdated or invalid.
Looking at the broader fabric of the readings today, we see that the intersection of religious belief and civil governance is the context of this lesson about the innate coherence of Christianity. In Isaiah’s prophecy Cyrus—a pagan emperor—is honored as the “messiah” of Israel for having allowed the chosen people to return to their native land from their exile in Babylon. The Psalmist for his part speaks of the “families of nations” which are governed rightly by the Lord and his faithful servants. In the gospel, as we have seen, Jesus stymies the efforts of his foes to force him into denying either divine or civil authority.
What does this mean for Catholic faith and life in our contemporary American society? First, we must be responsible citizens of our country by taking our rightful part in the political process, all the while observing the fundamental principles that our Catholic faith teaches us. In a recent statement on involvement in political affairs the American Catholic bishops affirmed: “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation” (USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 13).
Going further, the bishops explain that exercising citizenship as Catholics entails developing a well-formed conscience, exercising the virtue of prudence, and always seeking to do good and to avoid co-operation with evil (see Forming Consciences, 17-30). These are not easy tasks, but with God’s grace we can go about them peacefully, demonstrating at the same time our religious conviction and our civic mindedness.
In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come” (Heb 13:14). If the members of the Church, encouraged by their pastors and above all inspired by the preaching of Christ, keep focused on hastening the coming of that “city that is to come” by living as Jesus did with respect toward civil authority and with reverence toward God, then we will do justice to our Lord’s command “…repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matt 22:21), and we will maturely and gratefully accept our citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.