In today’s gospel, we see treachery writ large. The Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders and the Herodians, Jewish politicians supporting the Roman conquerors of Jerusalem, join together to trap Jesus, and to demonstrate to everyone that he is a fraud.
After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. when the temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Pharisees were working at restoring Judaism with the law of Moses at its centre. Meanwhile, Jesus’ followers were establishing Christian communities, with Jesus Christ, God’s Son, at the centre. This greatly threatened the old order.
The Pharisees and the Herodians were incensed that this man was challenging the status quo. They would set a trap! They would trip him into making an admission which would cause him great embarrassment and prove to everyone that he had led them astray.
We know the routine. Insincere people often begin with flattery before moving onto the sting. “Master,” must have caused Jesus to squirm inside. “We know you’re an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty.” Then if that is so, why are the professed religious people in the group not desiring to be like Jesus, we ask? The conspirators continue, “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” On the face of it, not a very complex question. The answer is “Yes” or “No.”
But Jesus knew where they were going with that question and it wasn’t as simple as it may seem on the surface. The poll tax was levied on the Jews by the Romans. It was a denarius, a silver coin, which offended Jewish sensibilities because it bore an image of the emperor Tiberias with the words inscribed underneath, “Son of the divine Augustus.” To the Jews this was blasphemous so they had coins minted without an image for their local currency. However, the poll tax had to be paid to the Romans with a denarius.
Jesus knew their malicious intent with that question about paying taxes to Caesar. They believed they had thought up the perfect trap. Jesus cannot affirm the tax without approving the use of idolatrous coinage nor can he reject it without inciting rebellion against the Romans.
Jesus confronted them. “You hypocrites. Why are you putting me to the test?” But determined to outwit them, he continued, “Show me the money you pay the tax with.” Interestingly, they were able to present a denarius, immediately, so that begs the question: Were they exchanging the idolatrous coin that they had replaced with a coin without an image, for everyday commerce? More insincerity and hypocrisy.
Jesus had turned the tables on the Pharisees and the Herodians telling them that just as the coins that came from the Roman empire were due back to the emperor through tax, our whole life, which has come from God and bears His image, is owed back to Him through Christian discipleship.
Sr. Maeve McMahon OP