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.