Respect for Politicians
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr David Goodill shows us a way of understanding Jesus’ saying in regard to paying taxes.
What difference does faith make to your life? St Paul, addressing the Thessalonians in today’s second reading heaps praise on them for showing their faith in action. Hope and love are also mentioned by Paul, as these are the shape that the power of the Gospel, through the Holy Spirit, gives to the lives of the Thessalonians. This life of faith, hope and love is the life of the Church, and it is offered to us through the Church, and in particular through our participation in the liturgy. The liturgy forms us and teaches us. Through participation in the liturgy our lives are transformed, so that we become sharers in the mystical body of Jesus Christ.
But what about the rest of society? Could too narrow an emphasis on liturgy turn us inwards, concerned only with internal Church affairs, whilst remaining oblivious to the world around us? Do we run the risk of becoming a club for those on the inside, with no regard for the rest of humanity? There is little evidence to support this charge, and it is clear that Christians are active within society on many levels. Rather than seeing an opposition between full involvement in the Church and involvement in society, let us turn to today’s Gospel for guidance on how the life of faith, hope and love is to be expressed in society.
In the Gospel Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees along with the Herodians. They seek to trap Jesus by asking him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus says yes he will lose support from the people, who oppose the imposition of Roman taxes. If he says no he will set himself in direct opposition to the Romans. In response Jesus gives the famous and much quoted answer: “Give back Caesar’s things to Caesar and God’s things to God” (Matthew 22:21).
At first sight this response would seem to confirm the idea that there is no relationship between our Christian life and our life in society. Yet Jesus does not say that his followers are to split themselves in two, nor that the demands of the Kingdom are limited to “religious” things. In order to understand this saying of Jesus we need to examine the radical nature of the Kingdom he proclaims.
Earlier in the Gospel of St Matthew Jesus has outlined his manifesto for the Kingdom. We recognise this as the Sermon on the Mount and particularly in the Beatitudes. Just as Moses received the tablets of the law of Israel upon a mountain, so here Jesus, the second Moses, proclaims the law for the new Israel from a mount. This new Kingdom is not, however, one which will have political boundaries. It is not a kingdom of this world. Yet it is present in the world, and those who belong to it are called to be the salt of the earth and a light to all people (Matthew 5:13-14).
It is in the context of Jesus Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom that we are to understand his saying concerning paying taxes to the Romans. His mission was not to establish a political kingdom, so in responding to the Pharisees he avoids entering directly into political confrontation with the Romans. At the same time his response is far more radical and further reaching than any act of direct political action. In giving to God what belongs to God Jesus makes possible a total transformation, which changes us on every level of our being. The life of faith, hope and love moves us not only to render to civil authorities what in justice is required, but to work for the transformation of society by going beyond the demands of justice. This often requires great personal courage and self-sacrifice. And so it is right that each Sunday we pray for those who serve us in political society, and that we respect them. It also encourages us to become involved in society, to use our own gifts in the service of other, so that we may co-operate with Jesus Christ in building his Kingdom.
Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5 | Matthew 22:15-21