By Mary Kate Holman
I have heard this week’s Gospel reading invoked by so many people to support so many different, often opposed agendas. Usually it goes something like this: “Jesus said it’s good to pay taxes!” “No, Jesus died so that we wouldn’t have to pay taxes!”*** “This means the Church shouldn’t interfere with politics!” “No, it means that the state shouldn’t interfere with the Church!” There’s nothing worse than hearing people appropriate Jesus for their own personal political message, particularly because the upshot of this reading is, I believe, fundamentally non-partisan.
The central moment of this passage is a trick question. The Pharisees have “plotted…to entrap” Jesus. They don’t ask the question sincerely as an opportunity to learn. They ask it to bait their opponent. How often do we hear politicians, pundits, even our own acquaintances in the vitriolic comment boxes of social media, do the very same thing? They debate, seize upon, and exploit their opponent’s misstatements, and take their words out of context, but they never truly listen to those whose opinions differ from their own.
Interestingly, it is not just the Pharisees who are testing Jesus here. They approach him “with the Herodians.” As Jesuit Scripture scholar (and my dear former boss), the late Dan Harrington notes, the Pharisees and Herodians would most likely have had very different ideological motivations: the Pharisees would have opposed Roman rule, and therefore the system of taxation, while the Herodians allied themselves with Rome, and would perceive a defiance of the tax system as rebellious. The only thing these two groups have in common is their insincere approach to conversation: they want to trick Jesus, not to learn from him.
Jesus’ challengers present him with an insincere question, so he refuses to take sides. This is not to say that Jesus remains politically neutral throughout the Gospel; he consistently sides with the poor, the vulnerable, and the outcast. But here, where the religiously and politically powerful bait him for their own purposes, he rises above their petty discourse: “…repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” he tells them. Or, to put it more concisely: “neither of you are right.” While most commentators focus on the content of Jesus’ statement here, I think the context and the tone of his discourse offer us the most helpful model for being good Christian citizens in a polarized, often toxic political climate.
Do we act more like the Pharisees and Herodians, dead-set in our own agendas and focused more on trick questions than real dialogue? Or do we take Jesus as our example, using our prophetic voices to transcend insincerity and bickering? It is only in following the example of Christ that we can faithfully and appropriately repay to Caesar what is due to Caesar AND to God what is due to God. God’s will is much bigger than our own short-sighted political agendas, and it is only in recognizing this fact that we can bring authentic Christian witness into politics today.
***While this seems like a truly bizarre message to extrapolate from this reading, it is the conceit of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus.