Recentering in Justice

BY CHLOE BECKER | October 19, 2020
Sunday’s Readings

I’ve always struggled with yesterday’s Gospel passage. Maybe I haven’t listened closely enough to its homily, but I’ve never heard a reasonable explanation for why Jesus would justify an oppressive ruler’s taxation. The idea that we have a secular, monetary responsibility and a separate, spiritual responsibility is not sufficient reasoning for me一it’s spiritually unproductive, and moreso, its implications are dangerous. It’s time we recenter this passage not in our modern context of taxes and government, but in the actuality of Jesus’s situation. 

Recentering in Justice

The passage begins with a line necessary to its understanding: “The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech” (Mt 22:15). The Pharisees were not asking a genuine question, but rathermuch like a political opponent in debatetricking Jesus into saying something dangerous. If Jesus had said how he likely felt (based on multiple instances of Jesus denouncing wealth and power i.e. Mt 6:24, Mt 19:21-26, Lk 16:14), Caesar would have swiftly condemned him. Instead, he tactfully responds with, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21). Yet the more I reread this passage, the more frustrated I become with Jesus’s situation. Jesus was spending most of his time preaching about the far-reaching love of God that calls us to live with justice for the most marginalized. But in this passage, Jesus wastes it in a test by the Pharisees. 

I can’t help but think about Christ-like figures today, who spend their time speaking and writing and protesting for causes of immense gravity. Like the local and national leaders who demand a deep, multi-faceted justice for the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the countless others. Like the activists at the U.S.-Mexico border who risk their lives to save those of crossing migrants. Like Church leaders Fr. James Martin and Fr. Bryan Massingale who publicize the suicide rates and hate crimes from homophobia and transphobia as life issues. These are not simply matters of justice; people’s lives are at stake. However, this often gets lost in the relentless political (and sometimes theological) “trickery” of those with privilege. Productive discussions become clouded by peripheral arguments. Political debate is important, but when talking about loss of life, we collectively need to sober ourselves with empathy. It’s easy to get wrapped up in dispelling arguments meant to distract from the original cries for justice. May we follow in Jesus’s lead: swiftly and respectfully deal with their claims, but always recenter the conversation on what truly matters一repaying to God (and thus, the world) the just, Agape love that first belonged to God. 

8 replies
  1. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    Nice thought Chloe. Thanks. Original cries for justice need to be addressed, the sooner the better. Those cries cannot be covered under a deafening silence. They will reappear again and again if we cunningly take one step forward and two steps backward.

  2. Lanny Nanagas
    Lanny Nanagas says:

    I am really also at a loss whether Jesus was “approving the payment of taxes” to legitimate political entity that caused hardship to its own people, or not….

    All I know is that evil flourishes because we do not CALL OUT THE EVIL !!! Not the person, or institution but the EVIL !!! And if enough of us call out the EVIL, then, perhaps, we will put political entities that will pay attention and not cause evil !!!

  3. James O'Neill
    James O'Neill says:

    One interpretation I heard is that Jesus is leaving it up to us to decide what belongs to Caesar and what does not,. I think we are called to use an informed, caring conscience. I don’t think Jesus is calling us to be libertarians but more like Henry David Thoreau?? who refused to pay some taxes because he disagreed with some military conflict we were involved in. Taxes do support some good programs like food stamps and education to name a few.

  4. John Arthur
    John Arthur says:

    Thank you for this reflection. I think that the image of George Floyd’s murder as a crucifixion is spot on: a public humiliation and killing.

  5. Joan Gunderman
    Joan Gunderman says:

    I struggled with this text, too, until it occurred to me: I don’t think Jesus is talking just about taxation issues. It seems to me it’s more of a LOYALTY/WORSHIP one. First, what in all of creation DOESN’T belong to God? Even the life of Caesar belongs to God. Second (following that line of thought), where does our ultimate loyalty lie? Who/what do we really worship? Who do we look to for security, protection, freedom? If it’s the government or a certain political figure, then we are paying to Caesar what truly belongs to God. Who/what is the true source of life, justice, mercy, unconditional love? God. And Caesar does not, CANNOT own our souls, our conscience. That also belongs to, and is informed by, Jesus/God. Bottom line: if we have to choose whether to obey Caesar or God, give to God what belongs to God — obedience, loyalty, faithfulness.

  6. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    Hello Chloe,
    At one point in your article you say “….but when talking about the loss of life, we collectively need to sober ourselves with empathy.” The loss of the lives of the individuals you mention is tragic. But for you and for all those who want to continue to chew at these few instances of loss of and disrespect of life I would like to know why you do not seem to collectively need to “sober yourself with empathy” and action for all the millions of lives lost and disrespected and ended through abortion-at the various stages of their early lives and even right after they are born? Disrespect of life is grave at any age so why not “dig in” and help others to see where the origin of this evil needs to be addressed? Empathy for totally innocent lives is our responsibility in a very big way-perhaps overseen by the “justice” of day to day politics and civic attention getters. Do you really think the lives of people lost in abortion will totally go away never to be heard from again for all eternity?
    It seems you must go deeper into the spiritual message of this for you to say what you did about the time Jesus spent on the message to the Pharisees. Jesus never “wastes time.” Jesus caught the Pharisees hypocritically having money on them in the temple which they didn’t believe in. The message of Our Lord is not to be found in a “thing” such as a coin. Jesus gave the strong spiritual message that he is above and beyond something material such as a coin-money. On this earth we live and think about this earth ( as the Pharisees were spouting about) but once we are Baptized we are of the kingdom of God-clothed in Christ and marked with the sign of the cross–something no coin can touch with any measure of spirit. There was no waste of Jesus’ time here but a strong message to realize what is most valuable-life, all lives and to get on board with what has real value. Jesus could never be “tricked” and could never hold back what truly needs to be said. His wisdom cannot be outdone. We just need to heed it.
    I hope you will spend more time with this Scripture passage and humbly look to God who is all knowing, all powerful and all wise and then realize the depth of His message and love.

      ANN WERNER says:

      Elaine, I am struck by a tone of arrogance in your reply here. It is a disservice to me, to this author, and to other readers. It may be a reflection of that noxious privilege that sneaks up on any of us who may have another ‘takeaway’ as we pray with any Scripture. You may have a very valid insight. Please don’t use it to diminish the worth of the initial reflection. It lays on my heart as a taxation issue. Forgive me if I am reading something into your words that you didn’t intend.

  7. RJ Andes
    RJ Andes says:

    Jesus never once was tricked and instead kept his beliefs and answered in a way to not cause a scene, kind of like political correct answer to not offend.

    Has for the names you mentioned which is affecting my community more than yours when they damage local stores where family get food, clothes and medicine for a already deprived community in most places.

    Was all the rioting, looting, protests worth it ? because there has been more lives lost and unnecessary behavior from my community that exposes we are not the victims but instead forcing a false idea.

    Tell me how stealing, damaging and looting helps against the SUPPOSED targeting of non white people (apparently) and fighting justice ?

    How is resisting arrest or carrying a weapon any different than a white, asian or latin ?

    Since Mr Floyd passing, I feel more ashamed to be black today than I did prior to is death, people need to sit down and think what they are supporting or fighting for. I do agree though that cops do need to readjust there current training program by making it longer and include new material that is aimed at modern America.

    Everybody wants justice but without police how would justice be served and aren’t we forgetting the true victims that is those that have been affected by the actual crime they are hardly mentioned,think about that when you defend.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *