Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 45: 1, 4-6; PS 96: 1-5, 7-10; I THES 1: 1-5B; MT 22: 15-21.
Well, it’s time for your pastor to trot out those well-worn platitudes around Jesus’ famous “Render” riddle. So after reading this morning’s gospel about payment of taxes to Caesar, your priest or minister will say something about separation of church and state. Ho-hum. Caesar’s realm is the political, he’ll say; God’s is the religious. Caesar’s is less important than God’s, of course. But be sure to vote (Republican) anyway – just to make sure that the anti-abortionists win. Never mind that their policies are pro-war, anti-life (apart, I suppose, from their single issue) and suicidal in terms of climate change. Those are merely political concerns. See ya next week.
Problem is: all that has nothing to do with today’s reading. In fact, it entirely misses the point of Jesus outwitting his questioners in their attempt to entrap him with a question about taxation that had no good answer – except the unforeseen one that Jesus gave.
Jesus is smarter than his opponents. That’s the obvious point.
The less obvious one is that Jesus’ response attacks the Roman Empire itself. It undercuts its economic base by rejecting Rome’s “fast money” in favor of the Jewish insurgency’s “slow money.”
Have you heard of that concept – I mean slow money? It’s explained in Woody Tasch’s book, Slow Money: Investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing 2008).
Building off Carlo Petrini’s idea of Slow Food, Tasch’s book presents the case for divesting from the haste of the global economy whose lightning fast computerized operations are necessarily devoid of thought about things that really matter. “Fast money,” as Tasch calls such transactions thinks of nothing but the corporate bottom line.
The outcomes of such inattention are evident for all to see. They include climate chaos, topsoil loss, water waste and pollution, as well as loss of jobs at home in favor of low labor costs abroad. Fast money causes inequalities which give 35 men as much wealth as half the world’s population. Fast money is like “fast food” which fills bellies but destroys health.
Slow money, on the other hand, invests locally, thoughtfully, and at a pace that imitates the very leisurely processes of nature. So Tasch’s book calls for a correspondingly paced economy. The slow money approach preserves family farms, encourages the growth of organic foods, and prevents waste of soil and water, while eliminating the contradiction of widespread hunger existing alongside fast-food induced obesity.
Once again, I bring that up because Jesus’ response to his interlocutors in today’s gospel represents rejection of Rome’s fast money. At the same time, it implicitly endorses a local form of slow money that almost everyone overlooks.
Recall the story’s pivotal question. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
If Jesus answered the way your pastor says, the Great Teacher would have fallen into the trap set by an unlikely alliance of Herodians (pro-Rome lackeys) and Pharisees (anti-Rome populists).
Saying “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” would have discredited Jesus in the eyes of the poor who comprised his main audience hanging on his every word. The hated Roman tax system cost them as much as 50% of their yearly income.
On the other hand, if Jesus had said “No,” that would be reason enough to have him arrested and turned over to the imperial authorities on charges of subversion. [In fact, that did become one of the charges at Jesus’ trial: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ . . . (LK 23:2)] Does that sound like Jesus ever said “Pay your taxes?”
So instead of saying “yes” or “no,” Jesus turns the tables on his questioners in a way that convicts them instead of himself.
“Show me an imperial coin,” Jesus asks; “I, of course, don’t carry any.”
One of the interrogators (probably from among Rome’s collaborating Herodians) obligingly reaches into his pocket and pulls out a shiny denarius. By that very act, he’s already fallen into Jesus’ trap. All bystanders can hear the cage door slam, as the insincerity of the Pharisees and Herodians stands exposed for all to see. Jesus’ follow-up question makes clear why.
“Whose image and inscription is on that coin, he asks?
“Caesar’s” his antagonists reply.
“Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus says, “and to God what is God’s.”
You see, no good Jew would carry Roman money. (And here comes the part about slow money.) Instead, Jewish nationalists did business using coins minted by Jerusalem’s Revolutionary Provisional Government. On its face was the image of a palm branch – the Provisionals’ “flag.” Such money was of no use to the Romans and could only be used locally to support the Jewish economy.
In fact, the insurgents forbade using Roman currency at all. That’s because doing so benefitted the Romans by giving them control over the Jewish economy.
And besides, carrying Roman coin recognized Caesar’s claim to own Judea which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. In fact for good Jews (as today’s first reading and responsorial make clear), EVERYTHING belongs to God. That leaves absolutely NOTHING for Caesar – except his own idolatrous servants clutching his pathetic coins in their bloated hands.
Even more, the face of Roman coins displayed a forbidden image – that of Augustus himself with the inscription surrounding the image identifying the emperor as “the Son of God.” The image and inscription made carrying the coin not only unpatriotic, but an act of idolatry. That in turn meant that the bearers of the coin themselves belonged to Caesar not Israel’s God, Yahweh.
Again, case closed.
All of this should remind us that our attitude towards money and its connection with imperialism is a spiritual matter of deep concern to those wishing to follow the Way of Jesus. As today’s readings remind us, everything belongs to God who (as Isaiah puts it in today’s first reading) is concerned about the welfare of “all nations” and not about the 1% or any abstract corporate bottom line. Empire’s God (as in “in God we trust”) is the God of fast money and not the God of Jesus who stood with those resisting the wholesale robbery that empire always represents.
So how do we avoid empire’s fast money when our wallets’ contents and those of our closets and garages convict us of idolatry? Here are a few of Tasch’s suggestions:
- Imitate Nature and her pace.
• Slow down everything – from your thinking processes to the way you walk and wash dishes.
• Change thinking patterns from fast money’s quarter and years to slow money’s seasons and eons.
• Where available (as with “Ithacash” in Ithaca, New York) use local currencies instead of greenbacks for local purchases.
• Adopt role models like poet, Wendell Berry, and Amish farmer, Scott Savage, rather than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
• Change allegiances from institutions and organizations (like “America” and members of its military-industrial complex) to land, household, community and place.
• Grow a garden and eat its produce.
• Stay away from fast food and out of Wal-Mart’s and Lowes’ Big Boxes.
• If you must invest in the stock market, “create a portfolio of venture investments in early-stage sustainability-promoting food companies.”
Like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians, such practices undercut empire and its destructive haste.
What other strategies can you think of to subvert fast money structures and practices?