Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (22 October)

Our Gospel passage for today comes from Matthew, Chapter 22

In this brief exchange between Jesus and Pharisees who ‘plot to entrap him’, we see Jesus as a consummate teacher and debater who amazes them – and us. Matthew, continuing to recount the dispute between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, relates a plan of deceit to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. A coalition of substitutes is sent to Jesus, pleading a phoney righteousness, yet in fact naming the truth. Jesus does truly teach the way of God, and does so without need for favour. In this setting the famous question is put, whether it is right to pay tribute money to Caesar or to God. Either way Jesus answers, he gets into trouble. In today’s political terms, it is a ‘gotcha’ question. If he advises not paying the tribute money, Jesus will be accused of sedition. If he advises paying, he sets aside the law of God. Jesus’ reply is cause for challenging reflection: Give to the emperor what is due, and to God what is God’s. This answer was as confounding and compelling today as it was in the first century. Jesus was suggesting that his followers have a dual allegiance, both to the teachings and commands of God and to the government under whose flag and laws they live. Christians also have duties and obligations that are due to both of those realms, and their challenge is constantly to decide: what do they owe and to whom? The language of the text makes it clear that both entities have a rightful claim to Christians’ allegiance. The question of what is truly ‘lawful’ can be answered only by looking forward to Jesus’ teaching on the greatest of the commandments, which grounds his debates with the religious leaders: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’, and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. The fulfillment of the law, including the question of whether or not to pay taxes, is that which grows out of complete devotion to God, expressed in love of one’s neighbour.