Whose Image is This?

The assignment was to present answers to some study questions for Matthew Chapter 22 (RSVCE – 2nd Edition) in the Ignatius Study Bible. The Study Guides can be downloaded free here. Since this wasn’t a written paper, this text is more the general idea of my presentation, which went over my 20 allotted minutes. The questions are in bold below.

JMJ

If politics are allowed play into my online discourse – social media or blogging – often it can cause distress for friends on left and right: traditional Christians who try to live out the faith (as Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants) can seem too far to the right for some secular liberals and yet – at the same time – too far to the left for secular conservatives. 

Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world – as the Christian is called to be in this world but not of it. This does not mean Jesus kingdom is not here, active and now: only  that it’s a different pattern than the worldly ideas of rule.

Jesus walks us through several of these sorts of oppositions in Matthew’s 22nd Chapter. 

He takes on Jew and Gentile, Pharisee and Sadducee, and sacred vrs secular. None of these are “the right way” to view the Tax Question. Let’s take a look at that passage (Matthew 22:15-22)

The Study Bible asks

What is the malice in the collaboration between Pharisees and Herodians in asking Jesus the question about paying taxes?

To get the answer (What was the malice?) we need to answer these questions first: who were the Pharisees? who were the Herodians?

The Pharisees were the “rabbinic” party of Judaism. It might surprise you to hear me say that on our modern “liberal/conservative” spectrum they were the liberals. The reason I say this is because they believed that man could – with God’s help – interpret the scriptures. That is to say that one did not need to take the scriptures literally, at face value. One could read into them for meaning, looking beneath the literal meaning of the words for greater clarity. 

The Oven of Akhnai

The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

It’s that last part that is important. The “liberalism” is that humans can “triumph” over God and tell God what the law should be. The Pharisees were among those who practiced this process of interpretation. There are several places in the New Testament where Jesus is debating with various Jewish leaders and says their interpretation is not the correct one and then – as God – he offers the truth. 

However, in our later chapter here (34-40) Jesus, being asked about the greatest commandment takes sides with one Pharisee over another! For there were two great schools of thought in interpretation, each named for a prominent rabbi, the “house of shammai” and the “house of hillel”. Rabbi Shammai (50BC-30AD) said the greatest commandment was to Love God (etc) and the second commandment was to keep the Sabbath. Rabbi Hillel (110 BC-10AD) said the same about the first commandment, but the second was to love your neighbor. Jesus – that is God – side with Hillel here. 

(Think about those who questioned Jesus repeatedly about Keeping the Sabbath! Perhaps they are from the school of Shammai?)

On the other hand, Jesus sided with Shammai on the question of divorce: Hillel said it could be for anything, even burning the dinner. Shammai said only for infidelity.

Anyway, the Pharisees were the party of “interpretation”. Remember that. It’s not that interpretation is wrong – it’s part of our tradition! But one still must have the right interpretation. 

The Pharisees are (generally) in opposition to the Sadducees, not only on theological matters, but also in terms of politics: the Sadducees have the temple priesthood and are the upper class. While the Pharisees are educated, solidly established in society, they are (generally) closer to the people, they are the Rabbis in the local synagogues, the teachers that are “on the street” as it were.

The Pharisees were looking for the Messiah to come and liberate the people of Israel. As we have discussed here in Class they were expecting political liberation from the Son of David: another king, another leader (perhaps like the Maccabees?) that might move them into their own political sphere. 

But who were the Herodians? Here I tripped up a lot in my research. To be honest I thought I knew who they were (the party supporting the line of the Herods) but that was not exactly right. I mean, it was, but yet…

So first off they were pro-Herod. Yes. Herod the Great and his children were the client kings under the Romans. They were Jew-ish… but they were not Judeans. They were from Idumea.  

 You may remember from the OT class that Judas Maccabee led a campaign against the Idumeans (and others) in 163 BC.  Josephus reports the Idumaeans were forcibly circumcised. (A.J. 13.257–258)

So.. they are Jew-ish, but they are not, perhaps, quite as fullheartedy faithful as more-willing converts.

Some of the sources I looked up indicated that some Herodians wanted the King to establish a theocracy in Israel. The Wiki cites Tertullian (Adversis Omnes Haereses [1,1)) saying that some even thought Herod was the Messiah!

Since Herod is the Roman Client King, they support the Romans (at least indirectly) and so they are what we would call Hellenists, although we’re not talking about Greeks now. They are “secularists” who want to get along with the secular power to protect their self-interest.

So here’s some folks claiming the Messiah has already come – from outside of Israel. They have reason to not like Jesus. 

And they are aligning with the Pharisees – who clearly don’t think Herod is the Messiah! And the Pharisees have no reason to align with the Romans… or their supporters. But “politics makes strange bedfellows” yes? Or even religious politics. 

So the question… Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is set up so that Jesus can offend the one party by saying no – whilst pleasing the other. Or, reversing the parties – by saying yes. The pro-Rome party wants you to say yes… but the pro-People party wants you to say no. This would be rather like the SSPX signing up with “Catholics for Choice” to oppose the Pope…

That’s the real malice: their alliance shows they hate Jesus more than they adhere to their own theo-political points. Hypocrites (v 18) is the exact right word here.

Jesus answer, as our NT textbook lets us know, can mean either:

  • One should pay nothing to Cesar because everything belongs to God
  • one should pay the emperor because he is God’s representative
  • one can pay Caesar but recognize that his authority is relative and that loyalty to God takes precedence.

The Dominican Sister who wrote our text thinks it’s the last one, but I think it’s more like a combination of the first two: 

In the Greek Jesus looks at the coin and asks “whose icon is this?” He uses the Greek word eikon which is used in the LXX in Genesis 1:26 to describe man made in God’s image. So… whose icon is on the coin? Yes, it’s Caesar, but whose icon is Caesar? Gods. 

Render to God… how?

I was disturbed by the “application question” the Study Bible asked here. Or, rather, I was disturbed by what seem to be the assumptions behind the question:

How honest are you in paying taxes to the local, state, and federal governments? ( a good question, but then….) What excuses do you make to yourself to avoid paying taxes? 

The Study Bible seems to think everyone is going to have excuses to make? Why make that assumption?

After working in the tech industry for most of the last 25 years, I’m over exposed to “libertarian” ideas. But our current situation, viz a vis covid, leaves us with a more-pertinent ongoing meditation on how our individual actions can effect the common good. This was the gist of the article Dcn Fred sent us just before Christmas. 

Taxes fit into this category: there are some who would object to taxes because of immoral uses crafted by government, but Jesus doesn’t seem to question the morality of the Caesar’s gov’t at all. 

There’s a prayer offered at every Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox tradition, for “our rulers and our God-protected army.” This phrase is also used in daily personal prayers.

Even under Stalin. There’s some mystery there, somehow, we get the Gov’t God wants us to have for the working out of our salvation.

Whose icon is this? This is something about everything belongs to God… and so we render everything to God. Yet somehow, through the mystery of Mediation, even this pagan emperor oppressing us is participating in God’s exercise of Authority.  We pay taxes to Caesar, but to God – and so our roads are built, the army maintains the peace… and we can continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come.

How generous are you in contributing to the financial support of the Church?

I don’t believe in claiming my donations to the Church on my  taxes. That feels like bragging. But I believe that the scriptures teach us to start at 10% and give until you’re not doing things you’d otherwise want to do. 

But it’s not all going to the Church. The Church Fathers suggest that it’s better to give to the poor directly… John Chrysostom suggests setting up a room in your  house to let the poor sleep in. He calls it a “Christ Room” since that’s who is really sleeping there. He says, “You have a place set apart for your wagon, but none for Christ who is wandering by? Abraham received strangers in his own home (Gn 18); his wife took the place of a servant, the guests the place of masters. They did not know that they were receiving Christ, that they were receiving angels.”

THIS sort of charity is what Jesus is talking about in the Parable 

What is the “wedding garment” that the guest has failed to wear? We’re all in the feast, right? I mean that’s the point of the first section: we are at the banquet because God sent his agents (evangelists) out to grace everyone. 

St Theophylact of Ochrid says, “The entry into the wedding takes place without distinction of persons, for by grace alone we have all been called, good and bad alike; but…

Now that we’re in… what do we do with the grace of God? How do we change our lives and the lives of those around us?

The Saint continues…  “the life thereafter of those who enter shall not be without examination, for indeed the king makes an exceedingly careful examination of those found to be sullied after entering into the faith. Let us tremble, then, when we understand that if one does not lead a pure life, faith alone benefits him not at all. For not only is he cast out of the wedding feast, but he is sent away into the fire. Who is he that is wearing filthy garments? It is he who is not clothed with compassion, goodness, and brotherly love. “

Finally, this points us to the kind of Love Jesus is talking about at the end of Chapter 22.

What does it mean to you to love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind? What do you do to demonstrate that love?

What does it mean to love your neighbor as you do yourself? How do you love yourself? How does that apply to the way you love your neighbor?

I mentioned that, among the Pharisees, this twofold reply indicates Jesus siding with Rabbi Hillel, that loving one’s neighbor is the second greatest commandment as opposing Rabbi Shammai. 

There is a story about a gentile who was exploring religion and he went to Shammai and said, “I am interested in the God of Israel. If you can explain the Torah to me while standing on one foot, I will consider this…” and Shammai beat him with his cane and chased him away.  Then the man went to Hillel and asked the same question. The elder stood up and, holding his foot in his hand, said, “What you would not have done to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go study.”

In this reply, he not only showed the heart of God’s law – love of neighbor – but he also reproved the other Rabbi – who, even as annoying as this question was should not have beat the man coming to him for wisdom.

So Jesus and Hillel, together, saying love of neighbor is the heart of the Law of God. And loving God taken as – somehow – the outcome of this love of neighbor. There’s some element of mystery here that we cannot understand in this life. But in some way, my loving service to my neighbor is loving service to God. And, likewise, my loving service to my neighbor is God’s serving them. 

The charitable man is both God’s action in service and – at that same moment – serving God.

I’m least likely to succeed at this. And daily this fact comes to me. Some of you know that over the summer I took a new job, leaving the word of tech after so long and becoming the Director of Community Services at St Dominics. The old-school title of “the guy who does the charity stuff” is “Almoner” from the word “alms”. I’m the Parochial Almoner, thus. 

Even with other people’s money, I cannot love fully. I spend my days wondering if I’m being lied to and who might be trying to pull one over on me. It’s only in our food ministry – and in the ministry at Most Holy Redeemer where I volunteer – that I can fully give myself over. It is such a blessing to feed people – even the people who may already have food! But to be open in hospitality, to know that somehow in feeding the poor at the door, I’m feeding God who feeds me… who enables me to feed the poor! This great exchange of God for God, this feeding of those who need food, the care of the smallest sparrow that God has – through me! Through me! His most unworthy servant – through me nonetheless – this is God’s grace in my life. 

So in loving you I am loving God and loving myself – it all becomes one process, one action, one outpouring of God’s love. (For, certainly, it is God who is loving here, not me.) To the conservative, giving away all this money makes us too liberal. C.S. Lewis once gave a pound coin to a beggar and his companion remarked, “You know he’s just going to buy a beer with that.” And Lewis replied, “Funny, so was I.”  We love without expecting a return. That’s how God loves us.

And yet – and yet – it’s not only the poor that need love, or, more to the point, not only the fiscally and physically poor who need loving. There are other types of poverty and we must show charity to them as well. This is where we are too conservative to our liberal friends. It is not love to let someone do whatever they want if what they want it to damn themselves. How do you love in a way that leads people to God – and away from their sins?

Here is another place where I am not yet mature enough in my faith, but our Holy Father calls us to accompany folks to God. 

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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