Twenty-ninth Sunday, Year A, 18 October, 2020: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21
Saint Paul writes to the Romans: Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Paul writes as a Roman citizen, with the rights of a Roman citizen.
Ironically, insisting on those rights would lead him to Rome, house arrest and execution under Nero.
Jesus replies to the disciples of the Pharisees with the Herodians, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Jesus speaks as a Galilean craftsman; historians tell us that the artisans and farmers of Jesus’ day were paying up to three-quarters of their income in combined taxes. Before King Herod and Caesar they had no tangible rights.
Caesar’s coin, for the census tax, bore the image of Tiberius Caesar on one side and on the reverse, that of his mother, Livia, as the deified Empress—the Roman Senate had voted her into the ranks of the immortals. That was a particularly repugnant blasphemy to any Jew; given Livia’s personality, that “deification” was probably repugnant to many a senator coerced to vote her that honor.
Jesus’ reply is dismissive, setting no value on such a coin; it’s as if he’s saying, “Send that travesty—and the tax—back to Caesar.”
By the time the Book of Revelation is written, the Roman Capitol is depicted as the whore of Babylon and the Emperor plays the role of Anti-Christ.
There is no clear and consistent New Testament policy about civil authority, nor should there be. But there is a consistent New Testament ethos about power, privilege and influence: they are not the path God takes. In Jesus Christ, God has chooses the path of powerlessness and identification with the marginal and the rejected.
Looking back over more than two-thousand years of Church history, this remains an example very difficult for most Christians to assimilate, or even accept intellectually. But, as Elizabeth Johnson reminds us, “The cross opens a pathway for all the suffering of the world to be taken into the very being of God. God is now so tied into history through his freely given Love on the cross that the pain of the world is admitted into himself. There, the power of divine Love heals, changes, saves it…”
Can power, privilege or influence compete with that?