God and Taxes

19 October 2008 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 45, 1-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thes 1, 1-5; Matthew 22, 15-21

Jesus, in the Gospel today, is in the middle of a controversy. The opponents are the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees resent paying taxes to the emperor, while the Herodians administer the tax system in Palestine. They join forces to trap Jesus. If Jesus denies that taxes should be paid, then He would be arrested as a political revolutionary. If Jesus affirms paying taxes, then He would lose the esteem of the religious nationalists. Jesus eluded the trap by asking someone to hand him a coin. The fact that both the Pharisees and the Herodians used the currency, then they should pay the emperor. But Jesus brought them to another level of understanding, by saying that both of them should be as diligent in paying what’s due to God as they pay what’s due to the emperor.

The coin, a denarius, bears the name of the reigning emperor. History has it that it was Tiberius Caesar, thus the inscription would say, “Tiberius Caesar, son of Augustus” and the reverse of the coin would have, “Pontifex maximus” the high priest of Rome. (The Pope is called Pontiff). Thus, the coin was a symbol of power. When a king conquers a nation, one of his first task is to mint his coin. Whenever the coin is valid, the king’s power reaches that part of the territory. And whoever head the coin bears owns the currency.

The coin therefore is a symbol of the state. The laws of our country are needed to preserve peace and order. Consequently, the citizens of the state enjoys services that preserve life. If we enjoy the services of our country, then we have responsibilities to it, like following rules and regulations, obeying traffic rules, paying taxes, etc. When citizens follow the law, they contribute to the prosperity and the building of a nation.

Moreover, currency shows boundaries. If a currency is not valid in a certain area, then the jurisdiction of the ruler ceases. There is a certain limitation of power even if one is an emperor, a prime minister or a president of the country. Thus, the coin ‘rules’ over the state it symbolizes. But not outside of it. That is why we have to exchange our currency when we travel to another country.

However, God is the only one who has jurisdiction over the souls of people. Including the ruler as the first reading says: Cyrus becomes an instrument of God. And therefore, anyone who exists and lives is under God — including the state that comprises people. God is beyond the boundaries that a currency establishes.

Jesus therefore teaches us that we should comply with our obligations to our country. But above all other state law is the human being, made in the image and likeness of God. And thus, human rights cannot be violated by anyone, regardless of his or her position in government. As we learn to deepen our faith, we also learn to contribute to society. Our faith should teach us to be better citizens of our country.

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