Seeking the Truth, Honestly

Seeking the Truth, Honestly

Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr John O’Connor contrasts Christian dedication to truth with the behaviour of politicians, ancient and modern.

There is a possibly apocryphal story about a senior prelate being asked out of the blue at a press conference: “Your Eminence, what do you think of the local night clubs?” Whereupon, taken aback, he replied: “I don’t know. I’ve never been to a night club.” The next day the newspaper headline ran: “Cardinal denies visiting local night clubs.”

In one sense, what the headline stated was true; but it was certainly untruthful in terms of what it implied. Facts were manipulated.

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about the impact of the social and other media to manipulate people through the manipulation of facts. And, for our part, we can collude with this manipulation by seeking out news sources simply because they support our opinions, even if at some level we suspect that the ethical standards of the journalism within are questionable.

There is nothing particularly new in matters such as fake news and the manipulation of facts. Indeed, today’s Gospel gives us a good example: using a clever question to try to entrap Jesus into saying things that could then be manipulated and used against him.

We are told that the Pharisees wish to entangle Jesus in his talk. That the Pharisees join with their traditional opponents, the Herodians, indicates how desperately both groups wish to eliminate Jesus.

They ask Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” In itself this is a legitimate question. It raises important moral, political, and religious issues. But it was a question difficult to answer without personal cost given the troubled political circumstances of the time.

To pay taxes to Caesar was in effect to support the Romans who had conquered Israel and who were keeping Israel in a form of captivity by installing a puppet regime supported by the Herodians. If Jesus spoke in favour of paying the tax, the Pharisees, much opposed to Roman occupation and in favour of strict Jewish observance, could then charge Jesus with being disloyal to his own Jewish people and their hopes of national independence, as well as being unfaithful to Jewish practice which forbade the fashioning of graven images in the likeness of any created thing – Roman coins had images of Caesar on them. On the other hand, if Jesus opposed paying the tax, the Herodians could then accuse Jesus of instigating revolt against the ruling powers.

The Pharisees and Herodians are trying to manipulate Jesus into saying something that can be used against him. But Jesus meets cleverness with cleverness. He asks them to show him the money they use for the Temple tax. The fact that they have Roman coins to hand suggests that they tolerate, at least to some extent, objects with graven images on them; and it might also suggest that they pay taxes to Caesar, or at least that they collaborate to some degree with the system. This is a clever move on Jesus’s part.

But Jesus’s response – ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ – is even more clever. It is not merely an evasive answer to avoid being trapped by his enemies. It also subtly raises some profound issues. In any case, Jesus’s answer in no way succumbs to the manipulation of his listeners in response to their attempt to manipulate him. Jesus both defends himself and challenges them to reflect on important matters.

Jesus asks whose image is on the coin. Jesus’s opponent reply: ‘Caesar’s’. On the one hand, as a coin imprinted with the image and likeness of the emperor, it in some sense belongs to the emperor; but simply by virtue of being a human being, Caesar (like every other human being) is made in the image and likeness of God, and thus even Caesar is subject to the One True God – in that sense he belongs to God. So Jesus’s question about whose image is on the coin is more complex than it at first appears, and thus so is Jesus statement: ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.

Yet despite the fact that Jesus was able to communicate much to his opponents, albeit subtly and in an indirect fashion, I cannot help but think that Jesus would have loved to have been able to have had an open and truthful discussion with the Pharisees and the Herodians about the important matters they raised. But such open discussion was not possible due to manipulation and destructive intent on their part. What a great pity!

As Christians we are called to be men and women of truthfulness in general and to have conviction in the truth revealed in Christ Jesus and lived out in the Church. In this are both called to be people who act according to the dynamics and principles of truthfulness, which are at odds with manipulation, and we are called to have conviction in the power of truth itself.

One great exemplar of this within my own Dominican tradition was the great theologian and philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas. Famously, he began most of his theological and philosophical enquiries by canvassing opposing views to his own and showing not only that these positions could be countered but that sometimes they could also be learned from. He was able both to correct and to learn because he trusted in the power of truth. Manipulation was not needed; manipulation did not even enter into the picture. And in this St Thomas was true to Jesus Christ, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Lord, open our hearts and our minds that we may be people of truth; and that in being witnesses to your truth we may trust in the power of the truth that we proclaim. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 45: 1, 4-6 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5 | Matthew 22:15-21

Picture: Jan Luyken’s Jesus 22. About taxes to Caesar. From the Phillip Medhurst Collection.

Fr John O'Connor is Regent of Studies of the English Province and Regent of Blackfriars, Oxford.