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10.18.2020 Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Tribute Money

Peter Paul Rubens


Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

painted between 1612-1614

The Tribute Money

The Pharisees and Herodians catch Jesus around a corner of the Temple and pose a rhetorical question.

Cloaked in red, contesting their crafty eyes, Jesus calls for a coin and asks them ‘Whose inscription is on it?’ ‘Caesar’s’ they answer. With one hand raised to heaven and the second holding the coin, Jesus utters his famous come back, ‘Render unto Caesar then that what is Caesar’s and to God that what is God’s’

Rubens captures the spontaneous reaction of the onlookers:

· Next to Jesus appears the countenance of one of his aged Apostles (perhaps Peter).

· Surrounding them are the wily. The first refuses to accept, the second is baffled.

· The bald Pharisee in his haughty demeanour glares at Christ in utter disgust.

· The fourth turns away with an air of indifference.

· The fifth appears to scrutinize him with malign bitterness.

Jesus, taller than his tempters, firmly stands his ground. The impact of Christ response was clear to his enemies. In saying ‘Render unto Caesar that which bears Caesars image’, Jesus was specifying ‘Render unto God that which bears God’s image[1].’

Amidst the adversaries is a turbaned oriental figure, with his glance towards the viewer. He is the narrator and author of the painting i.e. Rubens himself.

As Rubens looks at us through his painting, his lucid, limpid gaze reiterates the Gospel message. He invites us to be in the world but not of the world!


Matthew 22:15-21

15 “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21 They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.”


The Context

We have heard three Parables Jesus directed at his opponents.

They served as an introduction to the controversy that follows.

It concerns the paying of taxes to the Emperor.

The audience is made of Pharisees and Herodians.

The first, as religious leaders, resented paying taxes to a foreign government.

The most radical supporters of this party considered payment of taxes as an act of idolatry, since God is the only God and not Caesar. For them adherence to the law of Rome was an insult to God.

In the early Christian Community the payment of taxes also raised a moral dilemma because, after the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple (70 A.D.), the half-shekel temple tax had to be paid to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.

On the other hand, the Herodians administered the system of taxation in Palestine. They considered the refusal of payment as an act of rebellion against Rome.

Both parties joined together to entrap Jesus.

The Three Tax Payments

In the times of Jesus there were three regular taxes which the Roman government exacted:

1. The ground tax: a man must pay one tenth of the grain and one fifth of the

oil and the wine which he produced. The tax was paid partly in kind and partly

in a money equivalent.

2. The income tax which was one per cent of a man’s income.

3. The poll tax, or tribute tax, was based on the census and had to be paid by

every male person from the age of fourteen to the age of sixty-five and by

every female person from the age of twelve to sixty-five. It amounted to one


The Trap

This Gospel text opens with a clever plot. It is a trap!

The Pharisees and the Herodians approach Jesus in a flattering way.

They present this question to Jesus in public, while the crowd look on and listen. Their aim is to make Jesus discredit himself by his own words in the presence of the people.

Through this dilemma they hoped Jesus would lose the favour of the public and of the religious nationalists, or else get into trouble with the Roman Authorities as He would be subject to arrest as a political revolutionary.

A clever gambit, yet not clever enough!

The Reply of Jesus

Jesus recognizes their hypocrisy. He returns the question to them by asking them to show him a coin.

When they showed it to him, they have already given answer to their own tricky question: they do pay taxes to Caesar.

However, Jesus confronts them with a more poignant reality: as religious leaders of the People of God they have not kept the other side of the agreement: they failed to bring to God what belonged to God.

Jesus confronts them with what belongs to God:

Is it lawful to put the Sabbath above man?

Is it lawful to put heavy loads on the shoulders of people without moving a

finger to help?

Is it lawful to call the attention of people by using long phylacteries or having

them call you masters?

Is it lawful to prevent people from having access to the Kingdom of God?

Is it lawful to argue uselessly about vows and promises and yet let your father

and mother die of hunger to fulfil them?

Is it lawful to pay the tithes of mint and forget about honesty, compassion and sincerity of heart?

The opponents are revealed as hypocritical and not religious in the real sense of the word, and Jesus gains credit for having unveiled their intentions and true character, and having eluded their trap.

The other saying of Jesus also serves the purpose of explaining what Jesus means: “No man can serve two masters”[2].


Money is a matter of the spirit. The way we use it shows who God is for us.

Our life is transformed by the way we give.

As we give, we experience the love of God and freedom from selfishness.

We pray that being freed from any kind of dependence on riches, we may be able to express our love in the way we share our resources, our gifts, our talents and our love.


We contemplate the freedom of God:

The freedom of God to create the universe.

The freedom of God to become man.

The freedom of Jesus to serve.

The freedom of Jesus to die.

We contemplate the fruits of freedom of Christian life:

We experience the oneness of the universe.

We feel God acting in history.

We grow in freedom from fear.

We are sensitive to the needs of others.

We know God does not abandon us.

We care for the vulnerable.

We care for creation.

We celebrate with joy.

We pray with trust.

We learn from our mistakes and laugh with a healthy sense of humour.

We are joyful followers of Christ.


[1] Genesis 1:27: God created mankind in His own image and likeness

[2] Matthew 6: 24

1Peter 2: 17: “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor”.

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