Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time A: October 22, 2023

Matthew 22: 15-21

Fr. John Tran

In Matthew’s gospel today, the Pharisees are at it again, trying to catch Jesus in a religious error; this time teamed up with the Herodians. These are two religious-political parties of Jesus day. The Pharisees we are more familiar with. This group has some things in common with Jesus such as believe in the resurrection of the body, but they felt threatened by Jesus. The Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians were the three prominent Jewish sects of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were rabid nationalists and totally anti-Roman, while the Sadducees and Herodians differed from Pharisees in that the they were willing to come to a working agreement with the Romans for the government of Israel, so long as the Jewish religion was protected. What strange partners. Together with the chief priests, these three groups accused Jesus of “associating” with sinners and challenged his authority to teach in the Temple.

They all disapprove of Jesus as a troublemaker. So they lay the trap mentioned in today’s gospel. The Lord calls his opponents hypocrites by showing that they are carrying Roman coins in their pockets. Jesus pronounces those famous words: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

But today, I’d like to concentrate on what we can learn from the Pharisees and their allies; after all they have been with us several Sundays and will continue for a few more.

We can find ourselves wanting to use the tactics of the Pharisees and Herodians from time to time. What if we want something to go a certain way in the community, or in a parish or school committee we work on, or in a charitable organization we are involved in? Isn’t is tempting to tweak the facts to help our position or to use the name of a large donor to influence a decision? After all, the point is to get things done. It all comes to the point we see with the Pharisee and the tax collector when they visit the temple. The Pharisee who represents those who perfectly practice their religion, but has lost sight of God and his relationship with him. He forgets that he is a creature and not a god. The tax collector realizes his relationship with God and humbly says, “have mercy on me a sinner.” When we recognize this fact, we can look upon God and our brothers and sisters as a companion on the journey, and not as one who is superior.

Once, a young lady was soaking up the sun’s rays on a Florida beach when a little boy in his swimming trunks, carrying a towel, came up to her and asked her, “Do you believe in God?” She was surprised by the question, but she replied, “Why, yes, I do.” Then he asked her: “Do you go to Church every Sunday?” Again, her answer was “Yes!” He then asked: “Do you read your Bible and pray every day?” Again, she said, “Yes!” By now her curiosity was very much aroused. The little lad sighed with relief and said, “Will you hold my quarter while I go in swimming?” The little boy was straightforward and honest in his questions because he wanted to entrust to the lady something valuable. The Pharisees are not being honest. They have no intention of entrusting anything to Jesus. They are not looking for the answer to a question. They don’t want someone to hold their quarter. They are looking for a way to get rid of this trouble-making Nazarene named Jesus. They are not seeking cooperation in bringing about God's plan.

We are not Christians who are out to promote our own agenda. We are called to carry out the Lords plan. St. Benedict reminds us of this when he warns against pride and the evil zeal of bitterness. In that we area guided by St. Paul’s words, “unceasingly calling to mind [God’s] work of faith and labor of the hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul reminds us that we are chosen not only in words, but also in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the insight to know which are the correct ways to carry out what the Lord wants done. And this is done in the family of faith of which we are a part. If we do that, then we can keep straight what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to the Lord, as well as what our part in God’s kingdom is. We can act in the Spirit of God, and not the spirit of manipulation.