29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year: A
Is 45.1, 4-6; 1 Thes 1.1-5; Mt 22.15-21
The story is told that one day a beggar by the roadside asked for alms from Alexander the Great as he passed by. The man was poor and wretched and had no claim upon the ruler, no right even to lift a solicitous hand. Yet the Emperor threw him several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at his generosity and commented, "Sir, copper coins would adequately meet a beggar's need. Why give him gold?" Alexander responded in royal fashion, "Copper coins would suit the beggar's need, but gold coins suit Alexander's giving."
I was having a wonderful time at the sea shore. The ceaseless waves beating the shore and the freshness of the surroundings just made me feel very happy and relaxed. Just at that moment, there comes a toddler with a sad face asking for alms. As usual I put my hand into my pocket and wanted to give him any coin I could get at that moment. Well, lucky I got 5 rupees coin to give. He was ecstatic and he ran away. After about 10 minutes he appears again, in his hands 5 bananas. He offered me one. I declined to take any and said that all was his. Well, he sat just there and started eating one after another. Then I saw him eating even the soft inside skin of the banana. I felt too sorry for him. I imagined this lad must have been hungry for more than a day.
The Saviour Coin
Jesus asks to see a coin used to pay the tax, a Roman denarius, which was imprinted with a bust of Tiberius Caesar and bore the inscription in Latin, "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the Divine High Priest Augustus." Both the image of the emperor and the inscription would be offensive to observant Jews. Jesus turns the tables on the leaders by asking them whose image and whose inscription is on the coin. When they concede that both belong to the emperor, Jesus renders his famous aphorism: "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." In a single brilliant stroke Jesus silences his enemies, and they go away amazed at his answer (22.22). He answers their provocative question about paying the tax with an oblique answer-if the coin belongs to Caesar then it can be given to him. But Jesus immediately lays alongside this concession another more profound and more encompassing requirement: "[Give] to God the things that are God's." The comprehensive scope of "what belongs to God" makes it not a parallel with the concession to Caesar but a principle of commitment that moves far beyond civic obligation and even overrides it. The hostility of the leaders and their efforts to best Jesus only serve, for Matthew's Gospel, as a foil to highlight the wisdom and authority of Jesus the Messiah.
Theology of Giving
Today giving has become difficult. We are living in a society that eats our income systematically. Go to malls and restaurants, and you come back empty. Whatever you take with you is not enough for yourself and your family. Difficult days are ahead as we have just witnessed the markets meltdown. Moreover, we hear families separated and people depressed.
Give to God what belongs to Him
Then why Jesus says “give to God what belongs to God”? Of course the Jewish authorities sought to trap Jesus in a religious-state dispute over the issue of taxes. The Jews resented their foreign rulers and despised paying taxes to Cesar. They posed a dilemma to test Jesus to see if he would make a statement they could use against him. If Jesus answered that it was lawful to pay taxes to a pagan ruler, then he would lose credibility with the Jewish populace who would regard him as a coward and a friend of Cesar. If he said it was not lawful, then the Pharisees would have grounds to report him to the Roman authorities as a political trouble-maker and have him arrested. Jesus avoided their trap by confronting them with the image of a coin. Coinage in the ancient world had significant political power. Rulers issued coins with their own image and inscription on them. In a certain sense the coin was regarded as the personal property of the ruler. Where the coin was valid the ruler held political sway over the people. Since the Jews used the Roman currency, Jesus explained that what belonged to Caesar must be given to Caesar. This story has another deeper meaning as well. We, too, have been stamped with God’s image since we are created in his own likeness (Gen 1.26-27). We rightfully belong, not to ourselves, but to God who created us and redeemed us in the precious blood of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor 6.19-20). Paul the Apostle says that we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God (Rm 12.1).
Give to God what belongs to God." We should first give back to God our own selves upon which God's image is engraved. We don't bring back to God "what belongs to God" in a human being. Jesus went to the cross to do that. "Give to God what belongs to God" does not mean just lip service. Jesus spoke with the full realization that he was casting his life away so that humankind in sin would be pardoned for sin and handed over into God's hands as His. In order to bring that about, he had the conviction to sacrifice himself. He had the full intention to pay the full price. In fact, the Lord did pay the price. With his own life! Therefore, the Bible says it like this to us, "You are bought with a price." This is how it is written, "You are bought with a price. Therefore, show forth the glory of God by means of your bodies" (I Cor 6.20).
The Pharisees and Herodians were the local authorities who did not enjoy popular support in Galilee. They had decided that it was time to kill Jesus (Mt 12.14; Mk 3.6). Now, by order of the priests and elders, they want to know whether Jesus is in favor of or against paying tribute to the Romans. A deliberate question, full of malice! Under the guise of fidelity to the law of God, they seek reasons for accusing him. If Jesus were to say: “You must pay!” they would accuse him, together with the people, of being a friend of the Romans. Were he to say: “You must not pay!” they would accuse him, together with the Roman authorities, of being a subversive. A dead end!
Show me a coin
Jesus is aware of their hypocrisy. In his reply, he wastes no time in useless discussion and goes directly to the heart of the question: “Whose portrait is this? Whose title?” They answer: “Caesar’s!”
Jesus then draws the conclusion: “Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God!”. In fact, they already acknowledged Caesar’s authority. They already paid Caesar what belonged to Caesar since they used his money to buy and sell and even to pay the tribute to the Temple! Hence, the question was useless. Why ask something whose answer was clear in practice? They, who by their question pretended to be servants of God, were in fact forgetting the most important thing: they forgot to give God what belongs to God! What mattered to Jesus was that “they pay God what belongs to God”, that is, they mislead the people that they had lead away from God through their own fault, because through their teachings they prevented people from entering the Kingdom (Mt 23.13). Others say: “Pay God what belongs to God”, that is, practise justice and honesty according to the demands of the law of God, because by your hypocrisy your are denying God what is due to Him. The disciples must be aware of this! Because it was the hypocrisy of these Pharisees and Herodians that was blinding their eyes! (Mk 8.15).
Levies, tributes, taxes and tithes:
In Jesus’ time, the people of Palestine paid very many levies, taxes, tributes, fines, contributions, donations and tithes. Some scholars calculate that half of a family’s income went to pay levies. Here is a list that gives an idea of all that the people paid in levies:
Levy on property (tributum soli). The taxation officers of the government checked on properties, production, the number of slaves and then fixed the amount to be paid. Periodically, new taxation amounts were set in accordance with census taken. Levies on persons (tributum capitis). For the poor without land. This included women and men between the ages of 12 and 65 years. The levy on the workforce was 20% of the income of every individual.
Golden crown: Originally this was a gift to the emperor, but then became a compulsory levy. It was paid on special occasions such as feasts or visits of the emperor.
Salt levy: Salt was the emperor’s monopoly. The tribute was paid on salt for commercial use. For instance, salt used by fishermen to salt fish. That is the origin of the word “salary”.
Levy on buying and selling: For each commercial transaction there was a levy of 1%. It was the taxation officers who collected this money. For instance, to buy a slave they asked for 2%. Levy on professional practice: For anything at all one needed a permit. For instance, a shoemaker in Palmira paid one denarius per month. One denarius was equivalent to a day’s salary. Even prostitutes had to pay their taxes.
Levy on the use of public utilities: Emperor Vespasian introduced a levy on the use of public baths in Rome. He used to say, “Money has no smell!”
Toll: This was a levy on the movement of merchandise, collected by Publicans. Toll was paid on the road. At certain points there were soldiers who forced those who were reluctant to pay.
Forced labour: Everyone could be forced to render some service to the State for five years, without remuneration. This is why Simon was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
Special subsidy for the armed forces: People were obliged to offer hospitality to soldiers. People also had to pay a certain amount of money for the nourishment and support of the troops.
Levy for the Temple and for Cult
Shekalim: This was the levy for the upkeep of the Temple.
Tithe: This was the levy for the upkeep of the priests. “Tithe” means the tenth part!
First fruits: This was the levy for the upkeep of the cult. That is, the first fruits of all land products.
We will listen to this message spoken to the Jews and the people who have been bought with a price. "Give to God what belongs to God." Therefore, what we ought to do is to be God's own people by (his) grace and to offer ourselves up to God. First, we offer to God our bodies "as a holy living sacrifice for God's pleasure," (Rm 12.1). That's (true) worship from us (to Him). Everything we have comes from God. Naked I came and naked shall I return, blessed be the name of God (Job).