29th Sunday of Ordinary Time A
October 21, 2017
In the Gospel reading, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. They think they’ve come up with the perfect plan. “Teacher. Tell us, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22: 17). If Jesus says “no, it’s not lawful for us, as Jews, to pay taxes to the emperor”, then the Roman authorities will act swiftly to crush the imminent rebellion and many of Jesus’ followers will be frightened off. If Jesus says “yes, we should pay taxes to the emperor”, he will lose some of his followers who are hoping to be freed from Roman rule. And there’s more …. The denarius, the coin used for payment of taxes, carries the image of Caesar and an inscription describing Caesar as Son of God. The image and the title offend Jewish laws which prohibit the making of graven images and worship of any other God. So he might even give the Pharisees grounds for accusations of blasphemy. Perfect Plan! The trouble is they have underestimated Jesus. We might imagine the Pharisees’ faces when Jesus answers “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”. Jesus has managed to reply around it. He hasn’t spoken out clearly on one side or the other, the trap is empty and they’re looking foolish again.
Jesus is strictly against insincerity and hypocrisy. The question was not posed as a genuine seeking of advice, or to open up a discussion on the subject. If the Pharisees had genuinely wanted an answer to their question, what would they have made of Jesus’ reply, and what are we to make of it today? A few years ago, I heard, after mass, a young boy said: “We are told in religion class at school that God creates all of us in his image. If coin bears Caesar’s image is given back to Caesar, we should give ourselves back to God since we bear God’s image.” I think Jesus is calling the Pharisees, and us too, if we can hear him, to remember who we are – the people of God whose image we bear and whose presence is with us. He calls us to see things as God sees them, to live in this world with Kingdom (Christian) values of love, justice and mercy rather than the values of power, wealth and social status. The message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is among us now, within this world. It is from within this world that Jesus calls us to give to God what belongs to God.
It is an honour and glory without exception that we are the image of God. But it is also an awesome responsibility. When the face of a body is disfigured by self-indulgence in food or drink, or smoking or drug, when the face of a soul is twisted by faithlessness or filled with envy or hatred or greedy possessiveness, the image of God is warped. My sister Rita from Toronto and I watched the TV movie St. Rita from FORMED site last week. Saint Rita of Cascia was born 1381 to a noble family. Through arranged marriage, she was married at an early age into another noble family. The marriage lasted for eighteen years, during which she is remembered for her Christian values as a model wife and mother who made efforts to convert her husband from his abusive behaviour. Upon the violent murder of her husband by another feuding family, she sought to dissuade her sons from revenge. They died of dysentery a year later. After Rita lost everything in her life, she lost faith and endured immense pain. She began wandering in the streets, eating what were thrown away, sleeping in a cave. She lost her beauty and looked so terrible until one day she accidentally looked into a mirror and found that she had distorted God’s image in her. She cleaned herself up. It is believed that with the assistance of three patron saints she implored (John the Baptist, Augustine of Hippo and Nicholas of Tolebrino), she took on a task to reconcile and forgive her husband’s murderer, establishing peace between the hostile parties in Cascia. Pious Catholic legends later recounted that she was transported into the garden courtyard of monastery of Saint Magdalene via levitation at night by her three patron saints. She remained at the monastery, living by the Augustinian Rule, until her death from tuberculosis on 22 May 1457.
No matter what we have done, through the redemption of Christ, God will make his image lovely in each one of us again. When Christ comes again, each one of us will be found in his image. It might be hard to hear his voice under the busyness of everyday life but it’s there, like the still small voice after the earthquake, storm and fire. It’s the voice that cuts through the commercial atmosphere of competition and exploitation with the voice of fairness and encouragement. It’s the voice that cuts through cries for vengeance and war with the voice of understanding and peace. It’s the voice that cuts through the rough tones of ambition and ruthlessness with the voice of humility and gentleness. It’s a call to put the vision of God’s Kingdom above our own prejudices, resentments, jealousies and ambitions. It’s a call for us to be the people God wants and needs us to be in all its glory. We bear God’s image, so let us give ourselves back to him.
-Deacon Raymond Chan