Francis A. Sirolli, O.S.A.
Saint Thomas Monastery
Is 45: 1, 4-6
Ps 96: 1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
1 Thes 1: 1-5b
Mt 22: 15-21
Flattery is excessive praise, usually employed to lower someone’s guard and make him vulnerable to being used or attacked. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is being set-up by a hostile group who hope to trap him in a maze of conflicting allegiances. Seemingly clever at first, their attack is actually cumbersome and inaccurate. Consequently it fails. But how so?
It is important to remember that every Israelite owed allegiance to the one true God as the only divinity. But being annexed by Rome meant acknowledging the sovereignty of the emperor who, by that time, had also assumed divine status. This was blasphemous and repulsive to the Jews, but their survival demanded negotiation and compromise. They kept their religious practices and beliefs, but submitted to Roman taxation and control. In practice they eschewed the coin of the realm which was stamped with Cesar’s image and claim to divinity and used their own currency instead.
So the first blunder is to be caught carrying the coin of the realm. This in itself is shameful and Jesus catches them off guard, or they would never publicly hand one over. The second is much more subtle and even confusing. Jesus says to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Sadly, this text is often used by commentators in the U.S. as a scriptural justification for the principle of separation of Church and State. It has nothing to do with that. Jesus would not busy himself with such matters. He is trying to say that everyone’s ultimate, total and complete allegiance is to God alone. Any other claim is a delusion. Temporal, passing things may be given to those who value temporal, passing things–in other words, the very people who hand him the coin. So he hands it back to them.
But what about ourselves? How might these words of Jesus pertain to us today? The dexterity of Jesus as a debater is remarkable. He easily reads the minds of his opponents and turns their attempts to shame him back upon them. He thus becomes firmly established in the minds of the people (crowds of whom were always around watching and listening) as a sure-fire winner. As we read these passages we too might revel in his mastery over his adversaries and thoroughly enjoy it. And if we do, we are the ones who miss the point. Because this incident is related to us for our instruction, not our gloating.
Caesar was envied and admired because he was a man of enormous power, privilege and possessions. All of us know of that same feeling toward those who have these things or, worse yet, flaunt them, or “lord it over us” because of them. If so, it might really mean that to some degree, we too are mesmerized by them, that we are victims of a delusion. We do not see the ultimate emptiness of these things as clearly as Jesus did. On the contrary, we may think they are to be pursued with fervor. We may very well see such people as “successful” and envy them or detest them for it.
All these things are provisional goods and should be seen and used as such. They cannot and do not supply us with the ultimate, lasting satisfaction and fulfillment we were created for and should be seeking. Most often, we come to this realization rather late in life, if we come to it at all. Sometimes it hits us like a brick. We then become “dis-illusioned,” and perhaps confused and depressed. But being disillusioned is a good thing. If our illusions are shattered it means that no harm will ultimately come to us because what we have lost is unreal. Being mesmerized by them is the real danger. It remains for us to pursue what truly is real, to keep these other seductive goods in their proper perspective. It’s no wonder that Jesus made the first beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
To Jesus’ way of thinking the dominion of Caesar is no dominion at all. It’s a mirage. Infatuation with its trappings is worship at the altar of an idol. What goods the world offers are to be put at the service of God and his dominion, to advance his kingdom of the poor, the sorrowing, the meek, the merciful, the prayerful, the clean of heart and the persecuted. It is membership in this kingdom to which we aspire, and for which we pray at every Mass: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”