29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
October 17, 2020
Death and Taxes
An old saying tells us that there are only two certainties in an uncertain world. First, is that we all have to pay taxes; and second, is that one day we will all die. It seems like a grim world (don’t you think), to have one’s whole life framed by taxes and death! However, I would argue that today’s Gospel actually does pertain to taxes and death… … and while it’s pretty obvious how the Lord’s words relate to the reality of taxes, it is less obvious how his words relate to the reality of death. But, if you don’t mind, we’ll take it one-step-at-a-time, hoping that, by the end of this homily, we will have linked taxes and death in a manner that is anything but grim but instead a source of direction and hope.
The Obligation to Pay Taxes
So … back in Jesus’ day, and even now, taxes were an unpleasant topic. But in today’s Gospel, the topic was set up to be doubly unpleasant. The Pharisees and Herodians teamed up to trap Jesus, by asking him if it were lawful or not to pay the census tax to Caesar. A little background might be helpful here. The census tax was like a head tax that the Roman Emperor imposed on the conquered territories of his Empire, including Palestine. The people of Israel considered this census tax particularly offensive, not because the amount of the tax was particularly large (it wasn’t), but rather because it represented the domination of a foreign power. In fact, the census tax had to be paid in Roman currency, a coin on which was engraved the image of the current emperor, Tiberius Caesar. The inscriptions on the coin were even more galling to the Jewish people. One side of the coin hailed Tiberius as “the son of the divine Augustus” and the other side hailed him as “high priest” … The people of Israel rightly rejected both claims.
Thus, Jesus’ enemies thought they had him over a barrel. On the one hand, if Jesus answered that that it was unlawful to pay the census tax, the Pharisees and Herodians would get Jesus into trouble with the Roman authorities. They would tell Caesar’s deputies that Jesus was fomenting revolution against Caesar. On the other hand, if Jesus answered that it was lawful to pay the census tax, then he would incur the wrath of the vast majority of the people. Jesus, of course, did not fall for their trap but instead elevated the conversation. He asked to see the coin used to pay the census tax, asked whose image was on it, and then answered his enemies’ question with these famous words: “Then, repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus’ evenhanded response amazed his enemies and it continues to challenge us.
Jesus’ words remind us that we, as citizens, do have obligations to our country. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes those obligations when it says: “[Respect] for authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote and to defend one’s country” (№ 2240). We have both the right and the duty to work with elected and appointed officials to build a just society that protects our basic freedoms, including religious freedom, protects the lives of the innocent and vulnerable, especially the unborn and elderly, cares for the poor, welcomes newcomers, promotes racial justice and equality, distributes the tax burden equitably, uses its resources wisely, creates opportunity, and provides for the health, safety, and well-being of its citizens, while promoting peace, justice, and human dignity beyond our borders. How precious are our rights, but how serious are our obligations!
The Link between Death and Taxes
Yet, our obligations to our country and to our government are only part of the story. As you recall, the coin used for the census tax in the heady days of the Roman Empire made astonishing, all-encompassing claims for the Emperor. It proclaimed Tiberius Caesar to be “a divine son” and “a high priest” – titles which we Christians accord to Jesus Christ but to no one else. Of course, Tiberius Caesar was not the first and only emperor to make such claims. Over time, many totalitarian regimes have claimed an absolute hold on its citizenry. Such governments have acted as masters over life and death and have suppressed the voices of those who disagree with their laws and policies. And we may think that we are insulated from all of this here in the United States. But I think we should be wary of any law, any policy, or any platform that, in effect, regards human persons as non-persons, or imposes a religious litmus test on those who would serve in high office, or works with currents in society to suppress unpopular opinions and views, whether in the halls of government, in the media, or in academe. So too, we must be wary when everything in our society is politicized … when politics becomes not only bitter but indeed all-consuming, and when every societal problem occasions partisan bickering but no solutions.
The reach of government and its associated processes must not be either all-encompassing or all-consuming – a danger we are facing nowadays.
All of which brings me back to the point that taxes and death really do have something to do with one another, not only in popular lore, but also in today’s Gospel. When Jesus speaks of repaying to God the things that are God’s, he surely means that our very lives belong, not to us, and not to the government, but to God. Only God holds the keys to life and death; only God is the absolute master of life and death. Our lives really do belong to the God who made us and the God who redeemed us. For, as St. Paul says, “You are not your own. You have been purchased and at a price,” indeed, the price of the Precious Blood of Jesus shed for us and our salvation.
And the very “coin” with which we repay our obligations to God is our lives, engraved, not with the image of any earthly leader, nor even with some false image of ourselves. No, the “coin” that is ourselves is engraved with the image and likeness of God, for we are made in God’s image and we are called to be molded in his likeness. “So, our highest obligation in life – and one that is imposed on every man, woman, and child regardless of nationality and citizenship – is to give ourselves back to our Maker.” Whatever good we do for our country and for our fellow citizens, flows from our obligation to make our very lives a gift to God and others, just as God has given us his Only Son and poured out upon us the Spirit of his love. Our obligation to God is absolute. Our obligation to Caesar is subordinate.
“May God Make of Us an Everlasting Gift”
In Eucharistic Prayer III we pray through Jesus Christ, truly present on the altar, that we may be made “an everlasting gift” to God the Father … We ask that all we have and all we are might become an acceptable gift to the God who gave us life, sustains our life, and calls us to everlasting friendship. For we are convinced that, only by giving our lives to God do we find true happiness. Let us, then, discharge our duties towards our country and our fellow citizens in such a way that we please God by serving others in truth and charity while keeping our eyes fixed on the Kingdom of God in heaven. And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!
 Curtis Mitch & Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (2010) p. 286.