There is a commercial running currently on the television. It features Gordon Ramsay, a celebrity chef from Scotland. He has a well-deserved reputation for high culinary standards and low standards of civility. In the commercial Chef Ramsay explains his shopping needs to a sales woman; he ends the explanation by saying, “I don’t compromise.” Those few words have a great deal of significance because he is renowned for firing restaurant personnel who fail to live up to his high standards.
The really funny part of the commercial occurs when he learns that he will be getting everything he wants, without any need for his usual drama or shouting. He tells the sales woman, “I don’t know what to do. This is the point where I usually start throwing things.” She replies in a matter-of-fact tone, “Oh, that’s terrifying.” Although it’s a very entertaining commercial, it’s also an accurate commentary on our society: we don’t compromise our personal standards. Sometimes, this can be a good thing; at other times, it can be very destructive.
The question that was posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading was intended to be a loaded question. Many an unsuspecting spouse has been entrapped by the loaded question, “Honey, do these clothes make me look fat?” It doesn’t matter whether one answers “yes” or “no.” An affirmative answer betrays thoughtless insensitivity. A negative answer implies that the petitioner looks fat regardless of wardrobe choice.
A group of Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus, “What is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17) The Pharisees in the group thought that the annual tribute paid to Rome was an abomination and an affront to their beliefs. The Herodians were supporters of the vassal prince who served as the Roman representative in Gallilee. If Jesus opposed the tax, he would be accused of sedition; if he supported the tax, he would be accused of impiety.
Unfortunately for both the Pharisees and the Herodians, they weren’t nearly as clever as they thought themselves to be. Jesus caught them in their own trap. He said, “Show me the coin that pays the census tax,” and they produced a Roman coin. (Matthew 22:19) The fact that the group had a Roman coin with them indicated that the Herodians were, in fact, impious, and the Pharisees had made an embarrassingly poor choice of companions.
Jesus ended the conversation with a crushing accusation, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21) He said, in effect, that his opponents had failed on both accounts. The Herodians were not as loyal to Rome as they claimed, and neither were the Pharisees loyal to God. Jesus won the argument, but also produced a profound teaching about compromise.
The “census tax” (Matthew 22:17), was an annual tribute owed to the Roman Empire by the nations and peoples under Roman rule. In the ancient world, citizens did not pay taxes; rather, taxes were levied on conquered peoples. The tribute, or “census tax,” was both the source of government funding and a means of reminding conquered nations that they were now vassal states of a mightier power.
Roman coins were stamped with the image of the Emperor and a statement about the Emperor’s divinity. Pious Jews considered this to be blasphemous because there was no god except the One, True God. Jesus took a very pragmatic approach to the issue. He accepted Roman rule as an unavoidable fact of life, and judged the tribute tax to be morally neutral because the Empire did not allow any choice about the matter.
We should pay attention to how, and why, Jesus allowed this compromise. He made the very pragmatic judgment that, as the Roman Empire did not provide any alternatives to the tribute, one should pay the tax. The tax was undesirable, but unavoidable; paying it was the lesser of possible evils. This provides an easy way to judge our own compromises; the compromise that Jesus favored was one that, while undesirable, averted precipitating a worse outcome.
What sort of compromises have you made recently? Have you compromised on commitments to loves ones? Have you compromised on commitments to God? Have you compromised the safety of other drivers by the way in which you drive your car? Have you compromised the trust of someone who confided in you? Have you compromised your personal integrity by being uncharitable in situations in which you knew you could get away with it?
None of these above qualify for Jesus’ allowance for compromise. Jesus allowed compromise in situations in which the compromise was the lesser of possible evils. The situations above are ones in which the compromise is the lesser of possible virtues. We are a society unwilling to compromise when it comes to our personal comfort, but too willing to compromise when it comes to our personal effort.
Jesus said, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21) In other words, we are to make God’s will our highest priority, and let other priorities rank always behind God’s will. To do so might involve compromising our desires, opinions and plans, but that isn’t necessarily to be avoided. Compromising when it comes to things that are good in a finite way is sometimes unavoidable, but compromising when it comes to infinite Good is always destructive.
Politics, religion, commerce and family life in this country would benefit tremendously from making compromises that lessen our self-concern and enhance our trustworthiness toward God and neighbor. Jesus offered an easy way to make the right decision when facing the possibility of resolving conflict through compromise: accept what is unavoidable, and reject what is expedient. Compromising your comfort is a temporary inconvenience; compromising your virtue is a permanent loss.
A note on the Scriptures:
In the year 70 A.D. the Roman General Titus destroyed the city of Jerusalem in order to end an on-going Judean rebellion against Roman rule. A commemorative arch celebrating his victory over the insurgents still stands today in the Roman Forum. The destruction of the city had far-reaching consequences for Hebrew religion. The destruction of the Temple meant the end of Temple sacrifices, the end of Temple worship and the end of the influence of the Levitical priesthood. Hebrew worship was radically altered, and transformed into a practice observed in local synagogues.
In addition to issues regarding worship, the destruction of the city posed some theological problems for the disciples of Jesus. Up to that point, the city had been the center of missionary activity for the disciples. After the city’s destruction, the center of the movement became diffused among the principal gentile cities where congregations of disciples had been established previously.
The destruction of the city also raised questions regarding the disciples’ belief in an immanent return of the Risen Lord. After a few years, the destruction of the city began to be interpreted as a sign of God’s judgment on those who refused to accept the Gospel. The confrontation in this Sunday’s Gospel reading is a reflection of that theological interpretation of the city’s destruction by Rome.
The confrontation in today’s Gospel reading is the first of four questions about Jesus and his teachings; the first three are posed by Jesus’ detractors, and the fourth is a question that Jesus poses to the Pharisees. The four of them taken together (the annual tribute to Rome, the Resurrection, the interpretation of the Law and the authority of the Messiah), form an apologetic about Jesus’ teachings.
Matthew’s Gospel often explains events in Jesus’ life by quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. In at least ten instances, these quotes are introduced by the affirmation, “This happened to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” Here, in Jesus’ responses to the four questions, the author portrays Jesus’ own prophetic preaching as having been fulfilled as a result of Jerusalem’s refusal to acknowledge him as the Chosen One of God. The none-too-subtle subtext is, “If you residents of Jerusalem had listened to the preaching of Jesus the Messiah, your city would be standing even today!”
The saying, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21), is variously understood to be about the use of money, Church/State relations or the relative value of civil government. In its context in the Gospel, however, it is a reference to the failure of the religious and civil leaders of Jerusalem to avert their own destruction. The Gospel author was implying that the residents of Jerusalem had rebelled not only against Rome, but against God, and had brought dire consequences upon themselves.
Jesus advocated a pragmatic tolerance of Roman rule and a selfless commitment to God. Further, he saw no necessary conflict between the two. The Pharisees in the story represented the segment of Judea’s population who thought Roman occupation to be an intolerable offense against authentic religion. The Herodians represented the segment of the population who turned Roman rule to their personal advantage.
In the story, Jesus shames both groups by avoiding their attempt at entrapment. He demonstrates wisdom far in excess of his opponents. The message for Matthew’s church community was two-fold. First, belief in Jesus and his teaching is a matter of spiritual life and death; those who welcome the Word avert destruction. Second, accepting the message of the Gospel confers an obligation to understand how Jesus’ teaching speaks directly to one’s life. A Twenty-First Century application of this Gospel passage might direct believers to ask themselves how much conscious attention they give to fulfilling faithfully their secular and sacred obligations.