thoughts and observations on the daily readings
Tuesday of the 9th Week of Ordinary Time
Readings may be found here
This passage in the gospels is an immediately recognizable even in secular settings. Rightly and wrongly, the language and imagery of the exchange between Jesus and His opponents has been taken up in debates about taxation, the legitimacy of authority, opposition to totalitarianism, and many other debates in many other contexts. Because the passage is so often drawn into those other debates, it is important to hear it in its original context if we wish to do it justice.
Jesus belonged to conquered people, subject to oppression and injustice by a vastly wealthier and more powerful Roman Empire. Many of His fellow Jews of the day considered it a moral and religious imperative to openly or covertly oppose that oppression. Other accommodated themselves to the overwhelming power of Roman authority and then risked the wrath of their fellow Jews. Openly threatening Roman rule might see you executed by the authorities. Open support of their oppression might bring a knife in a dark alley from an aggrieved fellow countryman.
In this passage “Pharisees” and “Herodians” approach Jesus to test Him. This is surprising given that they represent the two poles of the ideological fight. Somehow, these two bitter enemies find common. Their question, as the passage indicates, is a trap that hopes to force Jesus to take one side or the other, allowing His opponents to denounce Him either to the Roman authorities or to violent revolutionaries.
Jesus defeats them at their own rhetorical game. He asks them to bring a denarius for Him to see. The fact that they readily possess this valuable coin – one used primarily by the Roman soldiers and officials – is telling. Next Jesus counters their question with one of His own: “whose image is this?” With their answer, they fall into Jesus’ trap. The coin is stamped with Roman propaganda promoting false claims about the divine authority of the Roman Emperor – “the son of the divine Augustus.” Jesus simply acknowledges that the coin belongs to the Emperor while reminding His listeners of their duty to God. In this brilliant turn of events, Jesus’ authority and wisdom are front and center.
In the gospels, we do not see Jesus railing against Roman oppression or joining the aggrieved revolutionaries of His day. We do, however, see two critical truths that respond to that environment of injustice, oppression, and violence. The first is the contrast between “the son of the divine Augustus” who claims absolute sovereignty over the world and the true Son of God Who is the Lord of Love and teaches that authority is service and that power is found in the gift of self. The second truth is that Jesus does in fact seek a revolution. His revolution, though, is not about returning hatred and violence for hatred and violence. His revolution is one that overturns hearts. To “render unto God” is to see our selfishness and hatred overturned by love, compassion, and generosity.