This gospel about paying taxes to Caesar is the first of a set of three passages in which Matthew describes how hostile religious leaders of his day attempt to trap Jesus with trick questions. The incident about paying taxes together with the following exchanges about the resurrection and about the greatest commandment indicate a growing conflict which will eventually result in Jesus’ execution under the Roman government.
After offering some flattering remarks about Jesus being a truthful man who teaches the way of God, the Pharisees lay their trap by asking “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus replies that the tax should be paid, he will lose the esteem of the majority of his fellow Jews, oppressed as they are by a foreign, pagan government and army. If he rejects payment of the tax, he will be arrested and executed for instigating a rebellion.
Jesus, recognizing the malicious intent of the questioners, asks them for a Roman coin that would be used to pay the tax. When they produce the coin with Caesar’s image on it, he says to them: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They are reminded that they themselves have God’s image impressed on them, and must repay to God what belongs to God — that is, their entire being.
A life implication of this incident in which Jesus outwits his opponents is suggested by the entire context of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew begins his gospel by telling us about the birth of Jesus in fulfillment of what the Lord had said through the prophet, ” they shall call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’ ” (Mt 1:22-23). This is the good news Matthew proclaims: In Jesus Christ, God becomes part of our world in a new way — beyond the presence through creation, beyond the presence through the prophets.
In the scene with the Pharisees, we see that Jesus is involved in the realities of the political and religious situation of his nation and his people. He knows what’s going on. He is not intimidated by power. He calls his adversaries hypocrites to their face, and then beats them at their own game. As Emmanuel, he will continue “to teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” even though he knows the result will ultimately be his arrest and execution.
Matthew concludes his gospel, and at the same time extends it into the future with the promise of the now -vindicated Risen Lord: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . . make disciples of all nations. . . . and behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28: 18-20). Jesus, in a new way, continues to be Emmanuel, “God with us.”
To be a Christian disciple in our time and place means to actualize God’s presence and rule as Jesus did in his historical time and place. This means that a disciple ought to know what’s really going on, without illusion. Although it may not happen in the extreme circumstances of Mt 10:16-25, it is hard to avoid the life implication that a disciple of Jesus at some point will be faced with the moral necessity of speaking the truth in an adversarial confrontation, regardless of the consequences.
The assurance that Christ keeps his promise to be “God with us” ought to save us from being intimidated, even if it’s just writing a “letter to the editor” about a controversial issue. And with a little work on our part, we may even be able “to teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” with some of the poetic flair and wit of Christ. That special presence of Christ’s spirit would be a nice gift to pray for in this Sunday’s liturgy.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.