Tag Archives: Caesar

Invincible Love

Christ Before Pilate, Duccio, 1308-1311

Good Friday

John 18-19

There is no greater proof that Jesus is the Son of God than his love for his enemies. In the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, Peter’s swift reaction in cutting off the right ear of the high priest’s slave captured the all-too-human impulse toward retaliation. Jesus responded with the strength and power of God: “Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” (John 18:11)

Strength and power are not ideas the world associates with suffering and torture at the hands of enemies. Mighty and fearful displays, such as when the earth swallowed up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram seem to demonstrate divine power more convincingly (Numbers 16:31-33).

The Son of God, in assuming flesh, accelerated human spiritual maturity to its zenith. Jesus answered Pilate’s questions with such calm assurance that the latter marveled. When Jesus’ accusers claimed that the Nazarene had to die “because he made himself the Son of God,” Pilate “became afraid” (John 19:7). He was a man immersed in political and earthly affairs. Talk of God or gods belonged to the mystifying realm of religion and the numinous. 

Pilate’s first question after that strange accusation was, “Where are you from?” (John 19:9) If Jesus was the Son of God, he would reveal an otherworldly origin. Roman mythology was pervasive enough to make Pilate afraid of spiritual forces beyond human control.

Jesus was silent, so Pilate attempted to assert and define his power over the mysterious defendant.

So Pilate said to him, “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?”

John 19:10

If Jesus was a mere man, he would do everything possible to gain release. He would fear Pilate’s power like all the other criminals who have stood trial before him. Jesus’ answer took Pilate by surprise.

“You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above. For this reason the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.”

John 19:11

Pilate was stripped of power before this bloodied man wearing a crown of thorns and a purple cloak. Divine tranquility and unshakable dominion emanated from his whole being. 

Without comprehending Jesus’ words, Pilate instinctively knew he was innocent and tried to release him. But he was caught between Truth and Politics.

The mob saw they were not getting their way, so they played their trump card: Caesar. 

“If you release him, you are not a Friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”

John 19:12

All sense of justice and right drained away at this threat to Pilate’s own position and security. He would not save Jesus at his own expense, despite his wife’s warning (Matthew 27:19). 

The whole world sought to preserve its own dominion and power by crucifying “The King of the Jews,” as the Hebrew, Latin, and Greek inscriptions on the cross mocked. Jesus, who bent low to wash the feet of his disciples the night before, poured forth invincible power and might by his mercy and forgiveness. Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, Jews and Gentiles—the world—came under his merciful wing.

Love is stronger than death, and cannot lay buried in the ground for long. On the third day, Love Incarnate rose from the grave to live and reign forever and ever.


The Royal Image

9th Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday

Mark 12:13-17

“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?”

The Pharisees and the Herodians thought they had Jesus cornered. Popular political figures at the time like Judas the Gaulonite had rallied many devout Jews to view Caesar as an enemy of religion; God alone was their ruler. If Jesus answered “yes,” he would lose his followers. If he answered “no,” they could report him to the Roman authorities as a rebel and be rid of him.

Jesus was completely unfazed. He answered their question with another question. Looking at a Roman coin in their possession he asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?” Out of their own mouth came the reply, “Caesar’s.” Then came Jesus’ unforgettable response: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

It’s not that God is not sovereign over the whole world, but earthly governance also has its proper sphere. Render to earthly authorities what is theirs, Jesus says, but what is everlasting and permanent—your very persons—give to God. Earthly coins corrode and decay, but the image of God stamped upon you lasts forever. We are the coin of God (St. Augustine). God’s image and inscription are imprinted upon our humanity. 

The hypocrisy displayed in this episode came to its climax before Pontius Pilate when Jesus was handed over to be crucified. The chief priests themselves said, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)


The Coin of Tribute

Taxes. If you want to see people react strongly, just bring that subject up. Taxes are a big issue in politics and economics. Some  want to get rid of as many taxes as possible. Others say we need to rebalance our tax system to make it more equitable. We need to tax the rich more.

Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 22, 15-21) reminds us that controversy isn’t new. In Jesus’ day his enemies try to get him in trouble with a question about paying taxes to the emperor.

“Tell us, then, what is your opinion:

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

The census tax to Caesar was a tax levied on the Jews that required everyone to pay one denarius (the equivalent of one day’s pay) to the emperor in Rome every year. It was a very unpopular tax, one more burden to all the other taxes people had to pay.

Some Jewish nationalists at the time argued against the census tax and at one point started a revolt against paying it. The Romans judged them to be traitors and quickly put them to death. Rembrandt’s illustration above shows the Pharisees and the Herodians questioning Jesus about the coin of tribute, but notice the fellow on the staircase ready to run and inform on Jesus if he says the wrong thing.

If Jesus said “Don’t pay the tax,” his enemies could have reported him to the Roman authorities and they would have taken care of him. But his answer is more complex.

Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”

Then they handed him the Roman coin.

He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

They replied, “Caesar’s.””Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar

and to God what belongs to God.”

On that coin, Tiberias Caesar, the Roman Emperor then, was pictured as godlike, wearing a crown of victory. His word and will were supreme. In a very clever way, Jesus says to give him his due,  but he’s not God, though he may think he is. Caesar, his state, his government, his empire are under a higher authority. All life is under God.

That’s a basic lesson for us today too as we look at all levels of government,  from our national to our local governments. Governments are also under God.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that a government follow a particular religion. In pluralistic societies like ours, it’s not prudent for a particular church to dominate.  We believe in separating church and state.

But that does not mean that governments should respond only to the will of the majority or the will of the powerful or the will of the rich.  Governments have to respond to the needs of all,  to respect human rights, “ life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”

When governments become the tool of private interests or powerful majorities, they no longer are under God who cares for all, especially the poor and the sick and the slow.

Later on, after he’s arrested, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who condemns him to death.  It’s a dramatic meeting. Pilate is a symbol of what can go wrong in governments. He’s  more interested in keeping his job than seeing that justice is done.

The One who stands before him has no power, no influence, nothing to give the Roman governor. He’s innocent, but the injustice done to him doesn’t matter to Pilate. He’s helpless, but that matters less. Pilate sentences him to death. Jesus stands for our vulnerable humanity. Pilate is an example of pragmatic power, looking after its own interests.

The great tragedy of governments is that they fall in love with their own power and position. But the greater tragedy is that we let them.