29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Pharisees sent their disciples to Jesus, with the Herodians, saying…
In the Sunday Gospel of the Novus Ordo, we hear the question of the lawfulness of the tax put to Jesus by the Pharisees together with the Herodians. Not unlike today, there is much politicking at work behind the scenes.
Understanding the politic sects among the Jews of Jesus’ day will be of the greatest advantage in grasping what is at stake in this simple question: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? We follow the statement of St. Jerome: “The prime virtue in one who gives an answer is to know that mind of him who asks the question.”
Status Quaestionis – The Debate in Jesus’ day
As Judaea was a province of the Roman empire, the people of that land were required to pay a tax to the Caesar of one didrachma or two denarii. Regarding whether or not it were lawful for Caesar to levy this tax, let us consider both sides.
Cornelius a Lapide puts the case well:
“This was a doubtful question. For prima facie, the negative, that the Jews were not justly subject to the Romans, would seem the more correct. For Pompey, who first reduced the Jews under the Roman yoke, was only called in by Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the grandsons of Simon the high priest, to decide between them which of the two was to succeed to the Jewish sovereignty and high-priesthood. By what right then did Pompey pass them over, and transfer the sovereign power over Judea to the Romans?
“And yet, if we examine what happened more carefully, we shall perceive that the contrary proposition is the more probable, namely, that Pompey seized upon Judea by the right of a just war. For when Pompey had justly decided in favor of Hyrcanus, as being the elder, his younger brother, Aristobolus, attacked Jerusalem, and filled it with his soldiers, who fought against both Pompey and Hyrcanus. Then Pompey took Jerusalem by storm, and made it subject, with the consent of Hyrcanus, to the Roman yoke. Hyrcanus being unable to keep it by himself, delivered it to Pompey, with the consent of the elders and nobles of the Jews, who preferred to be subject to the Romans rather than to Hyrcanus and Aristobolus. For they saw that without the Romans, the Jewish state would be annihilated by schisms and seditions.”
And, therefore, as the Romans had come to possession of the land and Caesar guaranteed the safety of the people through the presence of his soldiers in the cities, it was right both for Caesar to demand and the people to pay the tax.
However, the question of whether such tax was lawfully paid, placed our Savior between two horns of a dilemma. Indeed, if he answered that the tax was to be paid, he would seem to be a traitor to his own people. However, if he stated that the tax was unlawful, he would be denounced as a rival to Caesar. Thus, the difficulty.
The insurrection of Judas of Galilee
Further, Father Cornelius a Lapide relates that there was a certain Judas of Galilee about this time who had rebelled against the Empire and taught that it was not lawful for the Jews to be subject to the Romans or to pay them taxes.
This Judas of Galilee and his followers held that no one was to be called “Lord” or “Father” excepting God in heaven, and that therefore Caesar was not so to be honored. Further, they held that those who paid tithe to the Temple ought not to pay further to Caesar.
As our Savior and his Apostles were from Galilee, they were commonly thought to share in the teachings of this sect. All the more as our Lord himself spoke, in some places, similarly; i.e. regarding calling no man “father” or “teacher”.
For this reason, the Pharisees thought that Jesus would side against the Romans and so be condemned as a rebel.
The sect of the Herodians – for Caesar
The Herodians held that Herod of Ascalon, who had slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem and was father to Herod Antipas, was the Messiah of the Jews. Herod had indeed attempted to take this title to himself. St. Jerome tells us that Herod had encouraged the flattery of this sect, and further that it was for this reason that he tried to kill the Christ Child – as he would suffer no opposition to his claim to be the Messiah. Further, it was in his pride as an attempt to set himself up as the Christ, that Herod had build the magnificent temple for the Jews, which Josephus states rivaled even that of Solomon (Lib. Ant. 15 c.14).
As Herod had been set up as King by the Romans, the Herodians favored paying the tax to Caesar; therefore, many considered them to be traitors to their own people.
The sect of Pharisees – against Caesar
The Pharisees, on the other hand, did not accept Herod as the Messiah, but resented the Roman rule. To this end, they insisted that the Law of Moses gave a divine right of Jewish liberty and home rule.
The Jews held themselves aloof from the Gentiles, and many thought that the Chosen People ought not to be subject to idolaters. It was the opinion of many of them that, as God was their Master to whom they paid tithes, Caesar could not lawfully either demand or receive tithes from them.
The Pharisees, who especially emphasized this separation of the chosen from the profane and the clean from the unclean, therefore rejected the rule of Caesar – though not in so violent or public a manner as did the Zealots.
The sect of the Sadducees --
For the sake of completeness, we turn to St. Jerome’s words regarding the history and doctrine of the Sadducees (who were the other major sect of the time).
“There was Dositheus, prince of the Samaritans, who rejected the prophets. There were the Sadducees, sprung from his root, who went on to deny the resurrection of the flesh.”
How Jesus rose above the sects
Notice that the Pharisees put the question of the tax not in terms of justice but rather of piety. For they do not ask, “Are we bound to pay the tax?” but “Is it lawful…?”. Our Savior, therefore, refuses to discuss whether the Romans had rightfully taken possession of the land, but instead turns the dilemma to a question of religion and piety.
Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.
The coin which was made to the image of Caesar is Caesar’s, but the man holding the coin who was himself made in the image of God is God’s. Thus, the malice of the Pharisees is confounded, for they wished to clean only the outside of the dish, leaving the soul of a man filthy in sin. But our Lord came to purify what is interior to man, to free him from sin, and to make him to be a true child of God.