It is fitting that the gospel readings in October and November frequently focus on radical discipleship. Late fall in the United States is, after all, the time of political choices, a season of elections, partisanship, and rival loyalties. In this season, it is hard to escape the political implications of the story of Jesus and Caesar’s coin.
Of course the situation of Jesus, as well as of the community that collected the accounts of his life, differs vastly from our own. The gospel confrontation most likely represents a struggle between the party of Herod, loyal to Rome, and the Zealots, who refused tribute. Jesus seems to reject the Zealot contention, but he also distances himself from the Herodians.
The story is not simply about competing jurisdictions of church and state, nor about the isolated question of paying taxes (although both issues seem[ed] germane to our political campaigns as the century turn[ed]).
In this particular conflict, we see Jesus confronted by a group of people who want to trip him up and undercut his mission, since they suspect that his parables are actually challenges to their power.
His opponents use friendly, even smarmy words: “Dear teacher, truthful man, sincere fellow, you court no favor, nor ever act out of human respect.” Then, aware of the hidden agenda in their question, whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, Jesus says that they should give the coin to the one whose face appears on it. “And give to God the things that are God’s.”
This scenario is particularly interesting if it is taken as a metaphor for conflicting loyalties in a “Judeo-Christian nation” as it faces the (elections today).
Both prominent antagonists and their handlers say the right words. They are all on the side of angels: family, values, truth, fairness, virtue, faith, blah blah blah.
But the hidden agenda is really a question of authority. Who or what speaks to us authoritatively? I propose that it is not the choice between two political parties that pulls us one way or the other. (They are both pulling the same way: toward the empire of money, nationalism, and entertainment.) It is really a choice between Caesar and God.
What are we asked today to give to the empire? Is it our faith and moral practice? Our hopes and dreams? Our consciences? Our labor? Our children? And if we offer such sacrifices upon the altar of Caesar, have we betrayed the goods that are most intimately ours and God’s?
The empire and those who vie for its throne offer us, in differing forms, an ideology of self-interest. One version of this promises us lower taxes and more prosperity, national security and power, enlightened egotism, and the narcissistic myth that since we have “earned” our possessions, the poor of our country and of the world can make no claim on us.
The other version appeals to unbounded self-indulgence. Here we find individualistic choice exalted over every value and objective good imaginable. The clap-trap of rights talk, for example, has little to do with the intrinsic value of persons who command our respect by their very humanity. It is rather the scream of special interests grabbing attention, demanding satisfaction.
Out of both sides of the empire’s mouth come sophistries. One jabbers about “morality,” the other about “the right thing.” But behind the glib words is a message: how good we have it, how much better off we will be if we vote for the privileged candidate.
In a political campaign precious few words will appeal to our generosity, our discipline, or our spirit of sacrifice. If there is talk of discipline and sacrifice, these will be prescribed for the poor. If there is language of compassion, it will ring of self-righteous narcissism.
The shroud of death haunting hospitals and refugee camps will not be mentioned. The deceptions of our official instruments of war and governance will not be uncovered. The voracious economy, which demands full-time work from both parents hoping to raise children, will not be addressed. The extravagant mountains of money for jaded entertainers and corporate merchants will not be brought up to embarrass us.
We will only hear of what matters most: the products of our hands and the imaginings of our minds to which we supposedly turn for comfort and meaning, even salvation.
Isaiah’s God was heard to say, “There is no God beside me.” (Is 45:5) The Spirit that St. Paul preached led not to fatuous words but to active power. And Jesus knew what ought to be rendered to God: not lip-service, but heart and mind. If we go to that polling place and vote for one of those who would lead us, let us do so well and judiciously. Give to Caesar.
But let us keep vigilance over our souls.