With all the attention that has been focused (deservedly, I believe) on the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, both in Manhattan and around the world, I think today’s Gospel passage is particularly relevant. There are several ways one can interpret Jesus’s clever response the trap set by the religious leaders of his day — likely interested in getting Jesus to say something that might anger the Romans. In addition to the contextual presentation of the passage, understanding the contemporary dynamics of economy and occupation in the Roman Empire in a Jewish land, one can also look to the ways in which the Holy Spirit continues to inspire people in our own age through the Word of God.

One such way is to look at the events of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the increased focus on the economic injustices of our country (and, more recently, throughout the world). Those who oppose the movement tend to be the same people in favor of lower or no taxes, particularly for corporations and the wealthy. The matter of taxes is the launching point for the encounter in today’s Gospel. “Is it lawful,” the leaders ask Jesus, “to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus’s classic response places the proverbial ball back in the court of the inquirers: look at the coin, to whom does it belong? Whence did it come?

I think one of the things Jesus is doing in his response to the leaders is similar to what St. Francis of Assisi did in his own Christian life. They both withdrew from the structures and economic systems of their day that created inequality and injustice in their societies. Francis recognized that the growing money economy was reducing human life to a commodity, putting a price on people and relationships. Likewise, Jesus transcends the bickering about whether or not taxes are justly paid to the government. All things belong to God, nothing is really ours.

There’s a great story in the Assisi Compilation about St. Francis giving his mantel to a poor man, even though Francis was at the time frail and sick. His companion friar tried to convince the saint that Francis needed the mantel more, but Francis’s response was that this was simply on loan to him — it had always belonged to the one poorer than he.

Likewise, Jesus reminds the religious leaders seeking to entrap him that the money they use bears the image and finds its origin in a person and place not their own. Furthermore, they are exhorted to pay “to God what belongs to God,” which in fact is everything.

Nobody has a right to more than they need. Because everything comes from God and ultimately belongs to God, what we have access to and use of is simply on loan to us. We have a right to the basic needs that we require for human flourishing, but nothing more. Everything else belongs to those who still need it.

That some people, the so-called 1%, have most of the resources of the world and the rest of the population continues to toil and struggle to survive is simply unacceptable. The Gospel for today, partnered with Francis’s model of evangelical life, calls us to recognize that this inequality is a form of egregious injustice that stems from human avarice — and the profits of such behavior do not belong, according to any moral right, to those who have so very much more than they need.

Those who are “occupying Wall Street” and other financial centers around the world are indeed prophetic voices that should be heard. Their cry, in part, is a reminder to their brothers and sisters in charge of these financial companies that the money, the resources of this life and everything we claim as “ours,” does not belong to us. To think otherwise is an abuse of power, something which Jesus and Francis both sought to disrupt and systems they could never endorse.

Nobody has a “right” to “earn” millions of dollars while millions of people go unemployed, unpaid or unfed.

Nobody is justified in claiming that he or she has a “right” to the money he or she “earned,” because it — along with anything else someone has appropriated — is ultimately God’s and simply “on loan” for a time.

Nobody can claim that Jesus supports any movement that makes the rich richer and everybody else poorer, especially while decrying taxes that go to aiding others — Jesus himself says that taxpaying is right, if poetically through focusing on the inscription of coinage. Just take a look at the cash in your wallet — it belongs to the Federal Reserve, which is why its destruction is a federal crime.

Give to the government what is the government, but remember that everything belongs to God.

Photo: Stock

6 Comments

  1. (Thessalonians 3:7-11) For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.

    While, I do believe that Corporate greed is rampant, but perhaps we should aslo took more at the rise of individual, relativism, lack civic responsibility and self-sacrifice.

  2. Matthew, your comment seems to indicate that you believe the Occupy movement consists of people who choose to ‘disrupt’ rather than work for a living. If you believe otherwise, please pardon and correct me. However, if that indeed is your message, let me testify as to just how many people work full time, minister in Church, and still join the Occupy encampments around the country. That, at least, is my experience. What’s yours?
    Dan, thank you, as always, for the thoughtful, incisive, and moving commentaries. Keep up the good work! You are in our prayers.

    1. I was not making the assumption the everyone “occupying” the streets against Corporate greed, does not want to work. My challenge is more with the “entitlement” mentality that is so rampant today, not-to-mention the focus on individual “rights”, and everyone looking to the government to solve their problems.

      IMHO, those folks “disrupting” are creating an undue burden on the law enforcement system that is already stressed — fighting over precious local tax dollars. And all this hype to blame capitalism, the class warfare now waged by the current regime is similar to 1917 Russia, or any other country that has fallen to the communist ideal. Anyone want to move to Cuba?

      And while I may not personally experience the “occupation”, the reality is that perhaps NONE of those on the streets are or have been experiencing true proverty, (understanding their hardships may be true in their reality). If we look to other parts of the world, our poor would be considered wealthy by their standards.

      Lastly, is far as I am concerned, the left is succeeding in reaping their just reward. In the name of civil liberties, they have all but irraticated God from schools, ergo, the “good”, ergo ethics, ergo no sense of social/civic duty or responsibility on the part of “corporations”, etc. They have put such an emphasis on the individual “rights” to chose a “lifestyle”, abort a life, or what’s “fair”, that very few even understand the freedom acheived through personal sacrifice and obedience or authentic concern for their fellow man.

      But, for those of Faith, I do believe that in the end, the gates of hell shall not prevail, but it certainly looks scary.

  3. I believe much of the discussion and disagreement on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ phenomenon stems from our own duality of persepctive. Conservatives tend to stress personal responsibility while liberals tend to stress social responsibility. Instead of attcking one another, why can’t we agree that perhaps it’s both personal and social responsibility that are needed in the world today. Surely there are passages in scripture that support both perspectives. So let’s be good stewards of the gifts God has given us by being both personally responsible for ourselves and socially responsible for those who can’t do for themselves, always remembering that all we have is gift.

  4. Interesting! Thank you both. Matthew, your re-emphasis on “entitlement” and “rights” now seems well-founded; Sean, I appreciate your reminders. Pax.

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