the coin of the realm

Have you ever wondered why we do certain things a certain way? So much of what we do in life, it seems to me, we do without ever asking why. We do them … out of habit or just because: just because that’s the way we have always done them, or just because that was what we were taught to do, or well, just because. We never stop to question why. Or have you ever considered just how much of something is enough? At what point does a thing become too much? And when it becomes too much, what, if anything, should we do about it? Or have you ever had someone respond to a question with a question? Frustrating, isn’t it? And yet, we often hear Jesus respond to those who sought to test him with a question, just as he does today.

Roman Coin

The people of Israel followed the Mosaic Law, found in the first five books (the Pentateuch) of Sacred Scripture, which they call the Torah. The Torah is their history, the story of their covenantal relationship with God, but in a broader sense it documents man’s constant need for governance, for rules first set forth by God.

In the beginning, there was only one rule, one commandment, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17) and we all know how quickly that rule was broken.

The problem with rules is not the rules themselves or even that someone will inevitably find the ways and means to break them; the problem is that as soon as a rule is broken, more rules are created to correct the weaknesses in the original rule.

I used to be of the mind that, as marvelous a document as our Constitution might be, the framers made a serious error when they wrote the First Amendment. Their mistake was: they wrote far too many words! They should have quit after the first five: “Congress shall make no laws!” How much better would life be if only they had stopped there.

God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai the Ten Commandments. Ten rules to follow, only ten. And before the ink was dry on those tablets, the people had broken the first rule! Which, of course, caused Moses to throw the tablets down in disgust and stomp back up the mountain to ask, “Lord, what am I to do with these stubborn stiff-necked people?” God’s response was to spend the next forty days adding more rules to the original ten. By the time God was done, Moses had 613 laws to impose on the chosen people of God!

While following 613 commandments would be hard for anyone, over time Jewish leaders slowly added to these laws in what is called the Midrash. The Pharisees of Jesus day not only zealously followed the 613 commandments, but the literally thousands of additional new laws which had been created to clarify the original 613 laws as well. They prided themselves on following not just the letter of the Mosaic Law, but even the letter of the man-made rules designed to clarify the Law.

One example: the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, which means that Jews were not supposed to work on Saturdays. To clarify this, Jewish scholars created 39 separate categories of what “work” means, and within those 39 categories there are many sub-categories containing literally thousands of sub-rules to follow, including how many steps you can take and how many letters you can write on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees were zealous followers and defenders of the Law. In their zeal to follow every commandment, rule, and statute to the letter, the Pharisees lost sight of the intent of the Law, that the Law was a gift aimed at making it possible to know God’s will and to follow it.

They quite literally could not see the forest for the trees, and because of this, they were often scandalized by Jesus’ apparent indifference to the Law, and thus tried to trap him in his words.

The question posed to Jesus was a duplicitous question, designed to trip Jesus up. Only Roman coins could be used to pay the taxes and each coin carried an image of the Emperor or a member of his family and words inscribed such as “Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus.” For the devout Jew, each coin was a graven image and a symbol of their own oppression.

Pharisees were particularly disturbed by the attribution of divinity to Caesar but also considered possession of this graven image to be idolatrous. They even devised ways to pay this tax without actually possessing or handling the coin, for it would be extremely shameful for a Pharisee to possess one.

So amazingly, before realizing Jesus’ trap, one of them hands him such a coin. That someone in their group possessed and produced the coin was, in and of itself, a shameful act.

Jesus then responded to their question with a question of his own, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” When they replied, “Caesar’s” Jesus was able to respond, “then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Over the millennia there have been countless commentaries, reflections, sermons and opinions on what Jesus meant with his response. His words have been used to argue for the separation of Church and State as well as for their collaboration. They have been used to prove a Christian’s obligation to pay taxes as well as authority for Christians to avoid taxes. Depending on your particular point of view, these words have encouraged Christians to respect the sovereignty of the state or to reject it; to actively participate in civil government or to stand apart from it.

In his response, Jesus does not condemn money, for money is in itself a good, and it belongs to the government that mints it or prints it. Money is an agency of human government, and it’s within this context that we can see its role.

Governments are formed by human beings who use right reason to organize their relationships with others. As such, the idea of government comes from God, since God by His creative and sustaining power governs the whole universe. In human government, money is a useful part of governing our relationships with our neighbors.

Personally, I don’t believe that Jesus was charting a roadmap for relations between Church and State. Neither do I believe he was saying money has no place in religion. Nor that we should return every coin with a government image to the government or count ourselves free to ignore our responsibilities as citizens of a sovereign state.

Rather, I believe Jesus is inviting us to examine the coin and then examine ourselves. Whose image does the coin bear? Whose image do we bear?

While Caesar is in the business of minting coins, God is in the business of minting souls. Caesar gets his own image returned to him in taxes and tribute, but because our souls bear the divine image of God, our lives, our hearts and our talents should be “repaid” to God. For Jesus, the question isn’t “How much do you owe?”, but rather, “Who do you look like?

Whether we know God or not, acknowledge God or not, we belong to God. There is no “other.” We are each minted in God’s image.

Who we serve affects the way we live. When we struggle as Christians it is invariably a struggle about whether we will serve God by our decisions or serve someone or something else. When we clearly grasp who God is, and how much he loves us and how he has redeemed us through our Savior, that understanding evokes a radical shift; a radical shift of lifestyle, a radical shift of priorities, a radical shift of allegiance, a radical conversion of the heart.

As Christians and as Catholics we are called to recognize the living and true God, to love him with all our heart, mind, and spirit, and to place ourselves and all that we have into service for the glory of God. A 20th century martyr, Jim Elliot, put this into perspective: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”



Homily #145
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5B
Matthew 22:15-21

Deacon Chuck

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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