Denarius (“Roman Coin“) of the Emperor Tiberius, 14-37AD.
[The Pharisees asked Jesus] “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Matthew 22:17.
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That might seem an innocent enough question. Taxation is and has been a vexatious reality since time immemorial. We do not like paying taxes! But we have to. So why did the Pharisees think it important to ask such an obvious question? Well, once again, it was a trick question. If Jesus answered either yes or no, he would be condemned either way. Consider this: Jewish tradition rigidly observed (and still does) the complete prohibition of images, springing from the first commandment, which includes “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”, which refers to the many pagan gods in the lands surrounding Israel at that time. On the coin which Jesus asked to see, called a Roman coin in today’s gospel, but called δηνάριο (dēnario) in the original Greek text, was a graven image, almost certainly of the Emperor Tiberius. Worse, it states “DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS” meaning he was the son of the divine (or god) Augustus. Augustus was the first emperor, and Tiberius had succeeded him. And Augustus, in the eyes of the pagan Romans was now a god! Imagine that in the context of monotheistic Israel! The lady on the reverse is thought to be Livia, Augustus’ wife (also a goddess), posing as Peace, with the inscription Pontifex Maximus, or Greatest Bridge-builder, a priestly title (and one which the Christian popes adopted for themselves centuries later!). So if Jesus answered yes, you must pay it, he would be condemned as supporting a repulsive pagan idol-worshiper. Then again, if he said no, then he would be condemned as a rebel against the Roman authorities and liable to arrest and worse. Jesus’ ingenious answer put them to shame, using that very same image to declare that the coin must belong to whoever that image represented. So give it back! (And an aside concerning the denarius: it had a very long life. In the United Kingdom until 1971, pennies were identified by the letter “d” for denarius, hence 1/6d would be one shilling and sixpence, but the monarch’s head on the coin did not designate him or her as a god….).
So, in a sense, the very same pagan image on the coin assisted Jesus in confounding the malice thrown at him by the Pharisees. Today’s first reading seems to expand on that theme, talking of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and conqueror of the Babylonians, that people who had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and exiled the Jewish leaders to Babylon. Cyrus was not Jewish; he might have been a Zoroastrian believer, a faith found in Persia for centuries until the Muslim conquest, and if so, he believed in one God. He released the Jews from exile in Babylon, and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. It seems he even helped in the rebuilding of the Temple. Hence the glowing language of the first reading today, “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp…” So there seems to be room for exceptions to the Jewish condemnation of all things Gentile. They are not all bad! And this can apply to things Catholic also. In my youth, it seemed that all Protestants were doomed to hell fire forever, including my dear mother who was Anglican, but who had sworn on the Bible to bring her children up Catholic, which she did. So isn’t that an example of goodness from an unlikely, Protestant, source? Today things have thankfully changed radically, and cooperation is more the theme than condemnation. Note Jesus did not condemn the irreligious image on the coin shown him in today’s gospel, and instead used it to confound those who were seeking to bring him down. Thank you Tiberius, even though he knew nothing about it at all. So that could well be a lesson from today’s readings. We humans love stereotypes, meaning that we create profiles of people and things from the barest of facts. If you were to ask an exiled Jew in Babylon his or her opinion of the latest all-powerful king called Cyrus from the north who had just conquered the Babylonian empire, you almost certainly would have got a shrug and a “Cyrus Shmilus” with no hope of any change at all. Stereotypes are almost always wrong and can be dangerous and plain evil. Opinion and judgment should come from the facts, not invention. Good can come from the unknown; people condemned for their appearance stand scant chance of being understood even when the facts are known, so strong is the attraction of the stereotype. Today’s readings are a lesson in not trusting such fantasies, and letting the facts speak for themselves.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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