Matthew 22:15-21 | 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
I can remember hearing this gospel proclaimed as a child and thinking the Pharisees asked a really dumb question. Everything belonged to God, even if the coins did have Caesar’s picture on them, and that was that. That was also where I stopped my line of thinking—never drawing out that train of thought to consider the implications.
Wouldn’t it be nice if life were that black and white? If everything divided neatly into an either/or dichotomy? It would certainly make things simpler, and it would be much easier to determine right and wrong. But, as this gospel passage illustrates, the world is shaded in an entire spectrum of greys and Jesus makes it our responsibility to dive into that ombre ocean, as confusing as it may be.
I wasn’t wrong as a child. Everything does belong to God. But that knowledge doesn’t get us any kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. We still have to live “in the world” but somehow avoid being “of it” (1John 2:15-17). Talk about a task that oozes grey! I think Jesus wanted us to understand that we have to participate in the world in accordance with our understanding of the gospel, but He wanted to underline (and probably bold and italicize too) the possibility that our understanding may not be God’s intent. As humans, we don’t (and can’t) fully understand the realities of the Kingdom.
Is it wrong to pay taxes? No. We have a responsibility to pay them, to support society, to improve the world we live in, the one He gave us. But He also gave us a conscience, and Jesus expects us to use it. All laws and all governments are human constructs and so are inherently flawed. There’s no way we can make them perfect. Should we think about paying taxes as “giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”? I don’t think so. I think we should think of it as giving back to God.
But it’s our responsibility to use our consciences to ensure that governments reflect God’s will to the best of our ability. In a fallen world, nothing about that task is easy, black and white, or clear. But God knows where our hearts are. He knows if, even in our mistakes and errors, we were trying to bring His Kingdom to fruition. He knows whether we’re willing to jump in the ocean and swim in the grey or if we’d rather just try to find the easy way out.
The Pharisees looked for the easy way out—trick Jesus and send Him to His death. But Jesus plunged right in. He reminded them that while the image on the coin may have indicated Caesar’s ownership, the images in the mirror reflect God (Genesis 1:27), and we should try to live our lives to that standard.