Sunday Homily 22 October - Fr Paul Rowse, OP
The key to understanding what this God-and-Caesar business is all about, is that the coin is a “graven image”, and as such it is idolatrous. Therefore, it violates the commandment Israel has received not to have other gods and not to make graven images of them (Exodus 20:2-4). Various first-century Roman coins have been dug up in Israel. On one side, they show Caesar’s head in profile surrounded by Latin text which includes an abbreviation for the word divus (“divine”): Divus Augustus – the divine Augustus; Divus Tiberius – the divinised Tiberius. On the other side, they often show a female figure, who represents either the Empire itself or some victory it has won. For an Israelite, the coin, any Roman coin, is two-sided idolatry.
This means that the Lord was handed a coin which no faithful Jew should have anything to do with, if he should even allow it in his country. We should hear a tone of dismissal and disposal in the Lord’s reply. It is as if he says them not only “Give back” the coin but also “Get rid of it” altogether. If this is so, the Lord is calling the coin’s owner and others like him to a real faithfulness to God. More certainly, the one who satisfied the Lord’s request for a coin has had their infidelity exposed.
Therefore, when they produce the coin with Caesar’s head on it, the Pharisees and Herodians (which we’ll come back to) reveal that they have made a set of compromises. Questions of obedience and faithfulness now emerge: how did they produce the coin so readily? What compromises have they made to live as they do? What steps do they have now to take to come back from where they’ve gone?
The actions now to be taken are those to secure a new faithfulness to God through Christ, who alone in all humanity can clearly see what is wrong with it and mightily put it right. His privileged insight into our state is demonstrated in his very request for a coin: he didn’t carry one himself. Perhaps this is another reason why he didn’t carry coins. We’re very used to thinking on his poverty; his perfect fidelity to his Father as his perfect image would be another reason.
We should attend carefully to the meaning of the Pharisees and Herodians getting together like this. The Pharisees are very familiar to us: as experts in the Law, they are specially concerned for how it can be applied in the real world; we know they strayed into hypocrisy. The Herodians were a Jewish faction; they gave their support to the various Herods we know to remain semi-autonomous clients of the Emperor. The Pharisees and Herodians are strange bedfellows indeed, given the Pharisees’ insistence on purity under the Law and the Herodians’ accent on accommodation of Romanism. The hypocrisy of both groups has been exposed, and at the same time.
By their sin against the first commandment, they have allowed themselves to descend into another grave sin: the sin of collusion. This is when people work against good or neutral agents towards a bad goal. It’s wicked in the extreme because it’s secretive and thus exclusive of others; it’s deceitful towards the good and misleading of the innocent and ignorant; it’s divisive and thus offends against the unity of charity. The Pharisees and Herodians together have become idolatrous and ended up colluding against Christ. It’s all rather nasty. As the saying goes, it’s the common enemy which unites the oldest of foes. The fact of this peculiar coalition’s existence signals to us, at this late stage in our reading through the Gospel according to St Matthew, that opposition to the Lord is growing: the opposition grows not only in number but also in strategy – they’re getting all too good at trying to getting to him.
We ourselves shall be vigilant against a similar sojourn into sin by avoiding and removing the slightest first fault we detect in ourselves. By refusing to have no more than minimal, necessary contact with the Emperor’s coin, the Pharisees and Herodians ended up committing a worse sin together against Christ. By completely avoiding even little faults and repenting of them straightaway, we shall avoid their fate. The hard work of staying on top of ourselves is rendering to God what is his, namely, our very selves. The one who gave the Lord the coin no longer has anything in his hands: may it be so for us, who abandon whatever offends against divine charity to pursue all that is good.
Fr Paul Rowse, OP