4 June 2024 - Tuesday of the 9th even-numbered week

2 Pet 3:12-15a.17-18; Mk 12:13-17


          The most historically attested fact - even outside the Sacred Books - about Jesus of Nazareth is that he was tried and executed by the Roman authorities on a charge of high treason. When the Pharisees, Scribes and Priests took Jesus to Pontius Pilate to have him condemned to death and executed by the Roman authorities, they used the following accusation against him: ‘We found this man stirring up trouble in our nation: he prevents us from paying tribute to Caesar...’. (Luke 23:2). It is therefore important to analyse carefully the event reported in the Gospel account we have just read, since it was the event that was used by the Jewish authorities to have him executed as a political agitator.

          Jesus was very understanding of human weakness and showed shocking compassion for all kinds of sinners. But there was one thing he couldn't stand: hypocrisy. He couldn't stand the hypocrisy of the Jewish authorities who politically, socially and economically oppressed their own people in the name of religion. And he certainly wouldn't put up with the hypocrisy that today consists in seeing in the Gospel the basis of a so-called distinction between politics and religion that allows us in many cases not to let ourselves be influenced by the Gospel in our attitudes and activities in the social and economic order. In reality, such a distinction (which is something other than the autonomy of each sphere of authority) is a modern and purely pagan concept.

          The people of Israel lived under Roman domination. There are many indications in the Gospel that Jesus was as concerned as the Zealots, the Pharisees, the Essenes and any other similar group that Israel should be freed from this Roman imperialism. But his concern went far beyond that of any of these groups. He wanted to get to the root of all oppression and domination: that is, man's lack of compassion for man. If the Jews continued to lack compassion for one another, would they be any freer after they got rid of the Roman occupation? If the Jews continued to base their lives on the worldly values of money, prestige, clan solidarity and power, wouldn't Roman oppression simply be replaced by equally relentless Jewish oppression?

          Jesus was concerned with liberation in a much truer way than the Zealots were. They wanted a change of government (we'd say ‘regime change’ today!) from Roman to Jewish. Jesus had no problem with that. But he wanted this change to affect all aspects of life. He saw what no one else saw: that the oppression and economic exploitation of the Jews came from within rather than from without. The Jewish middle class, rebelling against Rome, was itself oppressing the poor and uneducated. The ordinary people suffered more from the oppression of the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots than from that of the Romans. The protests of this middle class against the Romans were hypocritical. And this is the crux of Jesus' famous answer to the question of whether it was legitimate to pay taxes to Caesar.

          In practice, Roman occupation meant Roman taxation. In the minds of the Pharisees, paying taxes to the Roman occupier meant giving to Caesar what belonged to God, i.e. Israel's property. But Jesus could see that all this was a mere rationalisation, a hypocritical excuse for their avarice. It had nothing to do with the real problem.

In their question, they asked whether it was permissible to pay tax to the emperor. Jesus' answer was not about paying, but about giving back. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's’, he told them. This answer shows that Jesus saw the real reason behind all the problems they were having with this question of taxes. Those who were asking this question were themselves in possession of Roman coins.   These coins bore the effigy and name of Caesar. It was not God's money; it was Caesar's money. If you refuse to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, it can only be because of your love of money. But, adds Jesus, ‘give back to God what belongs to God’, that is to say, give back to him his people, whom you have seized and enslaved. If you really wanted to give back to God what belongs to God, you would sell all your possessions and give them to the poor; you would give up your power and prestige.

          The real problem was oppression itself, not the fact that the Roman Empire dared to oppress the chosen people. The root of all oppression is a lack of compassion. Seen in these terms, the constraints of paying taxes to the Roman authorities rather than to the Jewish authorities were minimal compared to the constraints suffered by the poor and sinful Jews at the hands of their rich and ‘righteous’ fellow citizens. All these constraints had to be eliminated, but Jesus was much more sensitive to the sufferings to which the poor and sinners were subjected, as several Gospel accounts reveal.

          Jesus did not reproach the Pharisees for being too ‘political’. In a certain sense, he reproached them for being too ‘religious’, in other words, for oppressing their brothers and sisters in the name of a loveless religion.

          Who knows? Perhaps we are sometimes too ‘religious’ ourselves...

Armand Veilleux