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.
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 rather一much like a political opponent in debate一tricking 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.
Chloe Becker is an artist committed to creating Catholic art for racial justice. She graduated from Magnificat High School in 2020, is currently taking a gap year, and will be attending Harvard University in the fall of 2021. She is spending her time this year in Cleveland, Ohio as an intern at ISN and doing lots of painting. In 2019, she painted a mural at her high school school to strengthen the Catholic Church’s voice against racism, which gained attention over social media and was published in an article in America Magazine. She spoke at the 2019 Ignatian Family Teach-in for Justice, and has had her writing published by ISN.