29th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Setting Priorities

Upset and embarrassed by Jesus' parables, his opponents now regroup for a final assault of deceit and trickery.  Three times they attempt to entrap Jesus with contrived questions.  Each time the question is turned back on them until they dare say nothing more.

The first wave comes from the Pharisees who send their disciples and some supporters of King Herod to present Jesus with a politically sensitive dilemma.  The second question - which does not appear in this week's Gospel - comes from the Saduccees, members of the Temple aristocracy and religious conservatives, who are opposed to any idea not based strictly on the written Torah.  Finally the Pharisees return to pose a question about the "greatest commandment" of the Law (next week's Gospel).

From the very beginning of his Gospel, Matthew has coupled his portrait of Jesus with a somber record of rejection.  Jesus' teaching in the Temple and his answers to the Pharisees, Herodians and Saduccees brings the hostility of his enemies to a fast boil.  But Matthew's message is directed to the people of his own community as well about the kinds of attitudes that are fatal to genuime discipleship.

The Pharisees were the good church people of their day, and yet they were spiritually poor. 

It is a sign of spiritual poverty to conceive everything in terms of black and white.  It is a sign of spiritual destitution when everything is reduced to right or wrong, true or false, proper or improper.  It is a sign that you do not understand and appreciate God's world when you look at a person and declare, without qualification, that he is either good or bad, a sinner or a saint.   

Because they were thus "poor," the Pharisees looked at Jesus and got very confused.

Jesus taught many things about the Kingdom of God that they could agree with, things like - God will judge evil doers and condemn them.  Yet Jesus associated with people who were obvious doers of evil:  prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterers, and the like.  And they couldn't understand that.  He taught that obedience to God and his law was necessary, yet he healed people and allowed his disciples to pick corn on the Sabbath day.  Jesus bothered them, because while he taught the importance of holiness, a concept that was a part of their faith, He kept condemning the very people who seemed to them to be the most holy people, the teachers of the law, and the hard working priests at the temple.

Jesus disturbed the Pharisees; He upset the world they had created by their beliefs.  And so they ended up rejecting him, because what he said and did would not fit into their neat little boxes, those boxes which defined for them what was good and what was bad; what was holy and what was unholy.

Having decided that Jesus was a danger to the true faith of Israel, at least to the faith as they defined it, the Pharisees decide to trap Jesus in his own words.  They believed that their question - "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" - was exceptionally clever, and it was.
         
As a black and white question for the time and place that Jesus was in, it was a hard one to beat.  Let there be no mistake, the Pharisees, and the Herodians, were out to get Jesus.  They could not accept what he did and what he claimed because his actions and his claims did not fit their preconceptions of what God was like and how God worked in the world.

And Jesus called them hypocrites, because they refused to go beyond what they already knew of God.

You cannot really know God if you refuse to move beyond what you already know about him.  Formulas simply do not work in the Kingdom of God. The formulas, the easy answers, the pat answers - were the very things that blinded the Pharisees to the reality of Jesus.

Because Jesus did not fit their image of who the Messiah would be, or what a truly Holy person would say and do, they rejected him, and so missed out on the adventure of a lifetime.

They missed, too, the point of Jesus' answer. "What belongs to God," Jesus insists, is one's whole self.  We cannot be people with divided hearts who spend our time separating our lives into neat, safe little boxes.  It is clear from Scripture that we are called to engage the world and bring our beliefs with us into "Caesar's" domain.  We are to take our faith into the marketplace and, as Vatican II has reminded us, interpret our times in the light of the Gospel, because God colors the entire mix.

Jesus calls us to get our priorities straight; He is asking us to speak out and to do something real and concrete about injustice and human dignity; and He challenges us to sacrifice our complacency and comfortable-ness for the sake of our fellow pilgrims.

What works in the Kingdom of God - a kingdom that is all around us, a kingdom that includes all earthly kingdoms, and which incorporates all Caesars, all rulers both the good ones and the bad ones - is the sincere desire to do right, the willingness to struggle with issues of conscience, to see God in places that he has never been seen before, and to recognize that God is no longer where he once was.