domenica 22 ottobre 2017

«Cuius est imago haec?»

Today’s gospel is about politics! To understand it, it can be useful to say something about the political situation of Palestine in Jesus’ time. It was not an independent State, but just a province of the Roman Empire. It was divided into different regions; some of them under a puppet king (or “tetrarch”), like Galilee, ruled by Herod Antipas, and Ituraea, under his brother Philip; others, like Judea and Samaria, directly depending on Rome and ruled by a governor (at that time, Pontius Pilate). The Jews had different positions on Roman rule; there were different parties; two of them are mentioned in today’s gospel. The Herodians, so called because supporters of king Herod Antipas, were in favor of the Romans. The Zealots, instead, opposed the Romans and sought to overthrow their authority even resorting to terrorist attacks. Then there were the Pharisees, who also were against the Romans, but without employing violence.

It is surprising to see, in today’s gospel, Pharisees and Herodians, who were enemies among them, join their forces against Jesus. They go together to him, to entrap him in speech. Before asking him a trick question, they overwhelm him with compliments. They do not believe what they are saying; but they do not realize that what they are saying is true: Jesus is indeed a truthful man and he really teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth. Then they ask the question: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Please notice, paying taxes to the Romans means to acknowledge their sovereignty over Israel (actually, the Zealots refused to pay taxes to the Romans). Whatever Jesus answers, he will put himself against someone: if he replies, “Yes, it is lawful,” he will be accused by the Pharisees of being a traitor of his people; on the contrary, if he answers, “No, it is unlawful,” he could be denounced by the Herodians to the Roman authority as subversive.

As usual, Jesus manages to disengage himself very well. First of all, he unmasks the hypocrisy of his interlocutors; then he asks them for the coin to pay the tax. By producing the coin, they show that they are using the Roman money, thus accepting the advantages of the Roman administration and acknowledging indirectly its legitimacy. Then Jesus asks them: “Whose image is this (cuius est imago haec?) and whose inscription?” On the Roman coins there were the image and the name of the Emperor: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, great high priest (Pontifex Maximus).” This means that the coin belongs to him, and so it is right to give it back to him. In this way, Jesus acknowledges—and teaches us to acknowledge—civil authority, whatever it is. It does not matter if the Roman Emperor is a pagan. We have heard in the first reading what God says to Cyrus, the king of the Persians: “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not … It is I who arm you, though you know me not.” God is the Lord of history, and is free to use anyone to carry out his plans.

So, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” But Jesus does not stop here. Jesus acknowledges and respects civil authority, but at the same time reminds it of its limits. Political power is not an absolute power; it can levy taxes on its subjects; but it cannot claim what does not belong to it. What? Man. Why? Because man does not belong to the State, but to God. How can we know that man belongs to God? Just as on the Roman coins there was the Emperor’s image, so man is imprinted with God’s image: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him” (Gn 1:27 RSV). The image of God shows that man belongs only to him, and has duties towards him. No human power can take the place of God and prevent man from serving his Lord. “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”