If you have ever seen a presidential debate, you are familiar with the “compliment-zinger” phenomenon. One of the speakers will say something nice about the other, with the intention of disarming him. This is the “compliment.” Then the next line quite likely asks for an answer that usually implies the opposite of the compliment. This is the “zinger.”
In today’s Gospel (29th Suunday in Ordinary Time: Matthew 22: 15-21), we note a similar “compliment-zinger” situation. The Pharisees, through their followers, tell Jesus “We know that you are a truthful man…” The compliment. Then comes the zinger. “…is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus had said “no,” this reply could be seen as the beginning of a revolution. The folks in general were tired of Roman occupation and were ready to respond to revolutionary calls. If Jesus had said “yes,” he would have made many of the local people unhappy. Besides, the gospel tells us clearly that the Pharisees wanted to entrap Jesus.
Jesus was able to see through this charade, so he answered the question in terms of a teachable moment. He demonstrated the reply by asking to see the coin of trubute. Then he asked, “Whose image and inscription are these?” The obvious answer was “Caesar’s.” Then came the reply. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” What did he mean?
Above all, Jesus made a distinction between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God. The Pharisees never asked about God, but God was in Jesus’ reply. Why? Because Jesus wanted the people to know that God was important in people’s lives and the people needed to know that.
Whatever pertains to maintaining a proper society is the property of Caesar (the State), even taxation. But everything else belongs to God, especially our motivation for treating other people with justice, compassion, forgiveness and understanding. Divine law is more important than human law especially when there is doubt.
Remember the situation of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand? It was the Sabbath, and the law stated that there was to be no healing on the Sabbath. (Mark 3:1-6; Matthew 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11). Jesus, however, cured the sick man, and even put into perspective the relationship between divine law and human law. “…The sabbath was make for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2: 27).
So, one of the things we can learn from this reading is to remember that we must make a distinction between what is proper to give Caesar and proper what to give God. Whatever giving that is based on a moral value system belongs to God, even if it exists in politics, especially in the way we treat one another.