A reflection on Mark 12:13–17
The Pharisees and the Herodians were trying to trap Jesus in the story Mark tells today. Both groups represent the clear interests of the times in First Century Judea. The Pharisees, of course, represent Jewish religious authorities over and against the various Jewish factions, and the Herodians represent the puppet Tetrarchy put in place by Rome. They are often presented as being on the two opposite sides of the question, but in reality, both parties submitted to Rome and paid the census tax. They are trying to get Jesus to reveal Himself as a Zealot, one of a party of patriotic Jews from the Galilee who resented Roman rule and refused to pay taxes to a pagan ruler. Pharisee and Herodian probably agreed on little else, but the Pharisees were perfectly happy to coax Jesus into the Herodians’ pit, where the Herodians could then take over and condemn Jesus as a revolutionary. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the Arab proverb goes.
Of course, Jesus outwits them. He knows that they simply want to draw Him into controversy for their own ends. He does not deny the tribute owed to the government, but He also affirms the obligation we have to God. We have things of this world and things of God. We need to be able to distinguish between the two and meet each obligation appropriately.
What a challenge that is these days, when government regulations and doctrines of faith seem to be at odds in so many ways. We’re told to keep our faith to ourselves, not to legislate morality, to keep our noses out of people’s bedrooms. Oddly enough, many of the same people who say we should stay out of their bedrooms still think we should pay for what happens there. The old rule about never discussing politics and religion in polite company has become more about not mentioning the two in the same breath, and of course not allowing religion to taint our political opinions.
We can also be pulled in this direction by our own patriotic impulses. I will be the first to admit that I have always had this patriotic streak in me. I grew up with stories of George Washington and John Paul Jones, of the colonies and the War of Independence. I grew up with a sense of self as an American—with pride of being in this blessed country with a unique commitment to personal freedom. But that belief in personal freedom can often be twisted into an idolatry of license over liberty: a belief in the right to do whatever we wish instead of the right to follow our faith-formed conscience. Pope Leo XIII warned Cardinal Gibbon in 1898 of the dangers of what was then called Americanism—a focus on individual initiative over obedience to authority, a tendency toward assimilation into this country’s generally Protestant culture, and a division between Church and State that puts them essentially at odds to each other.
We as Catholics, of course, need to remember that we are called first to obey Christ and the Church He founded. To paraphrase St. Thomas More, we are citizens of this nation, but of God’s first. Sometimes, we get those two obligations switched around, giving allegiance first to the political ideologies of our times, then subordinating our faith to them. This happens on both sides of the political spectrum, and it unfortunately reverberates into our communion and causes divides. We attempt to enact our view of heaven on earth through our own obscured vision. Like Tobit in our first reading, we’re so convinced by our own virtue that we’re unaware, in our moral blindness, to the virtue of others.
But we’re not called to remake heaven on earth. We are called to be heavenly on earth.
Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, formerly of Denver, wrote a book a few years ago titled Render Unto Caesar, in which he argues that our role as Catholics and US citizens is to inform our lives by our faith and the teachings of the Church, and to carry that faith out into the political and social realm. That is the job of the laity, and that is one way in which we can take part in this New Evangelization. We can live our faith in active witness in our public lives, proclaiming the Gospel in both our words and deeds.