As an Australian, we can often feel small and forgotten, because we seem to be so far away from where all the action is happening. Our population is relatively small, we don’t have a huge army, or nuclear weapons to protect our vast land area. Yet we are also one of the wealthiest nations, with high income, good health, long life, and enviable lifestyle. And we have an alliance with and the protection of one of the greatest military superpowers the world has ever seen. Which means that we often miss the point of many things in the bible.
For the bible was written by a tribe of Jewish people that had experienced hundreds of years of suffering and abuse living under a whole series of more powerful and oppressive empires. And the Jewish prophets kept reminding both people and leaders that the oppression they experience and the freedom they seek is for a specific purpose – to maintain justice and righteousness and to care for the weak – the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the refugee.
Apart from many trips overseas, I have lived in Australia my whole life – which means that the capitalist system has been whispering subversive messages into my ears my whole life.
The main message is: More… You need more…
You need more stuff. More money. More land. More influence. More power.
Because more, we are told, is always better than less.
Except when more is actually destructive and damaging. Sometimes more is in fact evil.
So, when we read this confrontation between the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus today with this question about taxes – we need to wade through all of our social background first as members of the victorious dominant western culture rather than the underclass.
A few revolutionaries had tried – and failed – to overthrow the Roman occupiers. Most people hated having to pay so much in tax, leaving almost nothing to feed your family. So, the question that Jesus is asked is explosive.
He begins to answer by asking for a coin. The Jews knew that they were created in the image and likeness of God, so it was wrong to put images of people or gods on things, because it could confuse people.
But the coins that people had to pay their taxes with not only had an image of Caesar on them, they also had an inscription around the edge that proclaimed him “Son of God … high priest.” So, his questioner has to admit that he carries around these hated coins that bear such a distasteful and terrible picture and title.
Jesus answers this specific question brilliantly: give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God. He doesn’t provide a policy for all time about how we must resolve every economic question that we will face as we navigate our way in the world.
The mission of Jesus was not to be another revolutionary like the others around. The kingdom of God would defeat the kingdom of Caesar, but only because the love and power of God will always conquer not only Caesar but the even greater power of death and destruction itself.
+ Jesus, help us to be reminded of your constant call to care for the weak and oppressed, and to always make serving your kingdom our first daily priority. Amen.
** Please pray for me as I undertake an Ignatian thirty-day retreat during this month near Boston, MA **