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A Contentious Argument

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

Although the antagonist changes slightly in today's Gospel passage, St. Matthew continues to write about challenges to Jesus. For the past three weeks, we have listened to parables which Jesus uses to answer the challenges of the chief priests and elders of Israel. Today, we hear of a plot by rather unlikely allies: the Pharisees and the Herodians.

In order to understand the lengths to which the enemies of Jesus are willing to go, we need to consider the unlikely notion of Pharisees and Herodians acting in concert. These two groups were diametrically opposed to one another. The Pharisees prided themselves on not only knowing and keeping all 613 commandments of the Torah, but also of not associating with anyone who did not know and/or keep the commandments. It is the Pharisees who have challenged Jesus about keeping the Sabbath and about eating with sinners. Yet at this juncture in the Gospel, they are seen publically with a group of men who had collaborated with Rome and who regularly flouted the laws of the Torah. They are desperate to catch Jesus in their plot. St. Matthew clearly indicates that they have set a trap for Jesus in, first, their compliments to him, and, second, their question about the census tax. Once again, Jesus neatly sidesteps the trap and ensnares his enemies in it. He does so by exposing them as men who disregard the commandments if it suits their purposes.

The coin which they produce is a Roman coin which bears an image of Tiberius Caesar. However, it also bears an inscription which states that Tiberius Caesar is the son of the "divine" Augustus. To carry such a coin is a violation of the very first commandment. Yet when Jesus asks them to show him the coin, they readily produce it. The Gospel does not say who had the coin. It would have been unlikely that it was one of the Pharisees, but it does not matter. If it was one of the Pharisees, he would have been guilty of idolatry. If it was one of the Herodians, a far more likely scenario, the Pharisees would be guilty of keeping company with an idolater. The sin would have been just as bad either way.

However, Jesus' answer to the question also implies that not only are they idolaters or men who keep company with idolaters. He also implies that they are not giving God what is God's due. Perhaps this is even a more damning indictment for men who claim they are strict observers of the Law. Because all of this would have taken place in public, the Pharisees are shamed and dishonored in the eyes of the people. St. Matthew carries the indictment even further later on in the Gospel when, at Jesus' trial, they lie about this very encounter, another serious breach of the commandments.

The story takes on even more significance when we stop to consider that St. Matthew's audience is the Jewish-Christian community of Jerusalem. By the time of its writing, this Gospel was St. Matthew's way of answering the underlying conflict between this community and those who stubbornly refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish-Christian community was being persecuted by the Jewish authorities for disobedience of the commandments, especially the first commandment which states that God is one and there is no other.

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