Flattery is a tactic that may work sometimes. Before you try to ask for something difficult or admit to something bad or trick someone into incriminating themselves, you might try to “butter them up.” The careful listener and keen observer will be quick to pick up the ruse and thwart your attempts. The fickle and gullible will take the bait and fall into the trap. We know that Jesus was not fickle or gullible. He picked up right away what some of the Pharisees and Herodians were trying to do, as we hear in the Gospel for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Jesus cleverly turns the trick right back on them and leaves them speechless but angry, wanting to kill him. Where does that kind of anger come from?
Any of us who have ever had our positions of power and influence challenged know from where that anger comes. We don’t like to feel insecure and certainly don’t like it when someone seems to be leading people in a different direction than we would prefer. If we were honest, we would like the world to go exactly the way we want it to and not have anyone mess with it. We like to be able to predict events and call the shots. We prefer to have control and feel the power. So why isn’t Jesus so easily threatened or rattled?
Jesus often goes off to pray. In prayer, He finds the strength He needs to continue to stand firm in the mission He has been given and to hold off any temptations to set aside His hopes. Notice how He takes a moment of consciousness to take in the question that He is being asked. Instead of settling for a yes or no, He restates the dilemma He was given. So Jesus leaves us with one of the most curious choices in Scriptures. What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?
The simple answer is that everything belongs to God. No doubt about that. But those of us who need to live day by day have a more complicated set of choices to make. We all have basic needs that must be met. We need to eat and so do others. We need water clean enough to drink and shelter that keeps us safe. We need love and compassion, freely given without strings attached. We need care for our bodies, minds and spirits so that we can function in this world. But where does need stop and want begin? If everything truly belongs to God, then we ought to act by God’s wisdom and not our own. Is it true that I can take care of my wants and needs while others needs are not taken care of? We have the freedom to do that, but is it giving to God what is God’s? The Scripture reminds us that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor,” but do we? If we have learned one lesson from this pandemic, I hope it is that our lives affect the whole world. My breath could kill you. My compassion could save you. Let us give to God what is God’s!
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.