Navigating Political vs. Religious Obligations

User’s Guide to Sunday, Oct. 18

‘The demands of politics must always come after our foundational relationship with the Lord.’
‘The demands of politics must always come after our foundational relationship with the Lord.’ (photo: Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash)

Sunday, Oct. 18, is the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A). Mass readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96:1,3-5,7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21.

In today’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew, Our Lord is confronted by two groups determined to entrap him. Jesus’ preaching and miracles in Galilee had already angered the Pharisees enough to plot against him (Matthew 12:14). As Jesus left Galilee in the north for Jerusalem, the Pharisees tested him all along the way. But upon entering the great city on a young donkey, Our Lord was praised as the “Son of David,” and his first act was to cleanse the Temple (Matthew 21:1-17). Thus, he turned the tables on the Pharisees, pointing out their failures of leadership. 

In today’s reading Jesus is approached in the Temple by the Pharisees, who, St. Matthew tells us, are plotting “how they might entrap Jesus in speech.” They enlist the help of the Herodians, supporters of the Jewish royal family that had been collaborating with Rome for decades. Though the two groups loathed each other, they were willing to work together to stop this dangerous prophet from Nazareth.

After some flattery, the Pharisees pose to Jesus the question about paying Roman taxes, leaving him with the binary choice of either paying the burdensome tax, thereby offending the Jews who would side with the Pharisees, or not paying the tax, thereby alerting the Herodians that the Romans should silence Jesus. 

Our Lord avoids their trap and asks for the coin used to pay the tax, and when the Pharisees produce it, they reveal their own hypocrisy. By having the coin on them, they obviously already pay the tax. 

But then Jesus asks whose image is on the coin. It is that of Tiberius the Emperor, the successor to Caesar. So he responds with the famous words, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” At this, the Pharisees and Herodians slink away, having provided us with an important teaching still valid today.

How ought we navigate political versus religious obligations? As Isaiah says in the first reading, we must “know that there is none besides” the Lord. We are to “give to the Lord glory and praise,” “the glory due his name” says the Psalmist. In doing so, we place the Lord and our relationship with him at the center of our lives.

So it is that Jesus can argue that if the coin is Caesar’s because it bears his image, then we who were made in God’s image and likeness are his. Our whole lives are his. A regular theme in the Old and New Testaments, and the subject of the reading for next Sunday, our God demands all of us: our bodies, minds and hearts. It is, after all, the Lord who chose us. St. Paul says in the second reading that we are “brothers and sisters loved by God,” chosen “in power and in the Holy Spirit.” 

So our earthly obligations, often delineated by civic or political rules, are real; and we may meet them. However, the demands of politics must always come after our foundational relationship with the Lord. If they should begin to muddy that relationship, as was clearly the case with the Pharisees, then we have lost our way, for as the Psalmist says, “the Lord is king.”

Omar Gutierrez is a 

permanent deacon

in the Archdiocese

of Omaha, Nebraska.

He is the president and

co-founder of the

Evangelium Institute.