Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
“The Scope of Authority”
The question which dominates the readings of this Sunday is whether to pay taxes to the civil authority or not. The issue addressed, however, is not simply about financial obligations, but rather a more general question about the competence and the scope of the civil authority over the life of the people.
The first reading comes from the second part of the book of Isaiah which begins in ch. 40 with the message of comfort for the Israelites living in the Babylonian exile. In the section of Isa 44:24 – 45:8 – where our reading belongs – the prophet offers a theological explanation for the role that the Persian ruler, Cyrus (551-529 BC) played, in ending this tragic period in Israelite history. Cyrus defeated Babylon in 539 BC and issued a decree, known as “the Edict of Cyrus”, where he allowed the deportees to return to their lands. But it was God himself who acted through Cyrus. The text we read contains a direct speech of God addressing Cyrus as “his anointed one”. It might appear strange that a pagan king would be called “anointed” – the title normally reserved only for the rulers of Israel and Judah. Still, since it was Cyrus’ decree (cf. 2 Chr 36:22-23) that allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland, he played a special role in God’s plan and was anointed to act “for the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen”.
At the same time, it has to be remembered that this call of Cyrus came without his awareness of being in the service of God. Isaiah twice states that Cyrus acted “though you [Cyrus] do not know me”. God was able to work his purposes out through Cyrus without his prior knowledge of the Lord. Cyrus might be called an “unwitting agent” in execution of God’s will for the sake of Israel’s liberation. This emphasizes that the real power in all these events belonged to God who directed Cyrus to do his will. Israel, who is invited to contemplate Cyrus’ favorable action, was reminded that their God stood behind everything that had happened and Cyrus’ civil authority served God’s purpose of liberation and salvation.
The second reading contains the opening lines of the first letter to the Thessalonians. This short letter of Paul to the community in Macedonia is thought to be his earliest letter preserved in the NT, written from Corinth in 51 AD. Following what will become the standard pattern for his letters, Paul begins with the section called “thanksgiving” given to God for his blessings which were absolutely necessary for the foundation and growth of the Church in the city. Thus, he first gives thanks “to God for all of you” recognizing that God made it possible for them to become Christians. Second, throughout this thanksgiving, Paul evidences and acknowledges the efforts and virtues of the believers themselves, acknowledging their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Yet, Paul does not approach his addressees with a patronizing, “from above” attitude, as if he was fully responsible for their favorable response to the Gospel. Rather, he calls them his “brothers and sisters”. All he says about their faith and acceptance of the Gospel, shows Paul’s deep conviction that it was not his power of persuasion that made them Christians. Rather, the effectiveness of the “message of the gospel” came from it coming “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Paul knew full well that he and his coworkers were only God’s agents and mediators in the proclamation and acceptance of the good news by the Thessalonians (cf. 2 Cor 2:1-5). They used their apostolic authority solely for this purpose.
In the Gospel passage we read about the first encounter between Jesus and some Pharisees, which will be a series of disputes reported in Matthew ch. 22. This first dispute has a political character because it revolves around the payment of taxes to the Roman emperor. Taxation imposed by the Romans was a financial burden and a painful reminder that the Israelites were not living in their own land.
The trap set for Jesus by his opponents was brilliant. If he said “yes” to the tax, he would appear to accept the Roman occupation and that would make him an enemy of the crowds who hoped that he, the Messiah, would liberate them from the hated Roman yoke. But if he said “no” to the tax, he could be immediately accused of being a rebel and revolutionary, and denounced to the Roman authorities. For this reason, the Pharisees sent their disciples “along with the Herodians” who, as supporters of Herod Antipas, were collaborating with the Romans. Yet, Jesus not only avoided the trap, but took it as an opportunity to present his teaching on the limits of civil authority. His answer matched the brilliance of the trap set for him.
He asked for a “coin used for the tax”. His opponents knew and used such coins, even though they should not have, because it bore the image of the Roman emperor Tiberius with the inscription “son of the divine Augustus”. Thus, it was an idolatrous object with an image of a man claiming divinity for himself. By saying “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” Jesus admitted the lawfulness of paying taxes and giving to the emperor what belongs to him – a coin. However, by adding “give to God the things that are God’s” he placed a limitation on the emperor’s authority – he may have authority over the economy but he does not control the entirety of human life. The Emperor is no God and, since no Jew could ever argue with that, his opponents were left speechless.
In one sentence Jesus acknowledged the necessity of recognizing the legitimacy of human authority over certain aspects of human life. In this, Jesus showed that he is no rebel or violent revolutionary. At the same time, he indicated that humanity owes the ultimate obedience to the one to whom the entire creation belongs – God. In other words, no human leader can claim dominion over the entirety of human life and consider himself/herself equal in authority to God.
The biblical readings of today help us to understand the Christian teaching on the scope and competence of various authorities. Civil authorities can and must cooperate in God’s plan of liberating and improving the life of people, as it was in the case of Cyrus and in the case of Paul who used his powers of speech and persuasion on behalf of God to instill faith among the Thessalonians. Jesus powerfully stated that civil obedience is the right attitude, but it has limits. No human authority, not even that of the Roman emperor, who claimed to be divine, can be considered absolute and equal in scope to that of God. As Christians, we might owe taxes to the civil authority, but to God we owe our lives. The psalmist reminds all of that fact with the call: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name”.
The liturgy today reminds us of the place that authority holds in our lives. We respect our parents, leaders, church officials or those who are responsible for us in schools and other institutions. The first reading shows to us how God used the authority that was invested in king Cyrus for the purpose of liberating and saving the people of Israel from the Babylonian exile. God truly makes us, the future leaders and our current leaders, instruments of salvation, if only we realize that God is the one who has placed us in this position solely to serve the common good of his people. Kings and chiefs in our African society were the prominent figures whom we were called to emulate, except for those who turned out to be wicked or corrupt. It is very easy for us to point fingers at our political leaders and talk about their duty. However, we ought to remember that we are all instruments in the hands of God because we are also leaders in the making, or already have some responsibility vested in us.
Paul and his co-workers, conscious of their ministry of proclaiming the Gospel, knew that the authority they had was given to them. They acknowledged themselves to be mere instruments in the hands of God. They were open to the Spirit of God working in their hearts, and were aware that the authority to carry out their mission was given to them by God. Jesus faced with the challenge from the civil authority taught that God’s own authority places a limit on the civil authority. He did not condemn the civil authority recognizing that it has its place and role in organizing the state and maintaining peace in it so that everyone can live well. However, he denied that it can claim the right to own peoples’ lives.
The readings call us to examine our attitudes towards authority. Some of us are already called to the service of authority, and some of us are aspiring to it. We ought to remember that God gives us authority for a purpose. It is not something that is meant solely for us to lord it over others. But we are called to be like Christ, who came to serve not to be served. It is only when we attune ourselves to God that we will be able to grasp the meaning and purpose of the authority he has given to us. For a Christian leader the authority should be like that of Paul and his companions – aimed at leading the people towards the greatest good, which is God. There is a Malawian proverb which says that “He who is leading and has no one following him is only taking a walk.” Let us be people who lead with good example in such a way that our friends and companions in schools where we study or places where we work, will see Christ acting and living in us. Let us be aware that in whatever group we find ourselves as leaders, small or great, we are God’s instruments wielded for the good of his own people whom we are serving. Let us not depend only on our efforts but learn to lean on God. As to our civil authorities, we have to pay due respect to those in charge of us. However, it is also our duty to challenge their misdeeds such as corruption or neglect, realizing that they do not own our lives and have no right to damage them.
How do I look at those who hold positions of authority?
What are my attitudes towards the rules and regulations that govern the institution or place where I am? Do I have respect for authority?
Response to God
As a young person, I wish to commit myself, be it in the family, school or place of work, to be at the service of all whom I will meet in the course of the day by being available to them.
Response to your World
In my personal prayers today, I will pray for my elders, those in civil authority, politicians and church leaders as well
In our prayer meeting as a group, let us place a flower vase made of clay or a clay pot and try to visualize ourselves as that fragile instrument (clay pot) in the hands of God and see how God is filling us with his grace and gifts for the liberation and salvation of those around us.