29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Reflection: Jesus, and learning a lesson from Charlie Brown


The cartoon character Charlie Brown never ages and seems not to learn much either. Every fall since 1953, Lucy has been snatching away the football just before Charlie can kick it, leaving him sprawled on the ground, lamenting. Poor old Charlie Brown.

It often seems that Jesus’ opponents were as naïve as Charlie Brown and as unkind and double-crossing as Lucy. Over and again, they failed to realize that they were no match for the wit and wisdom of their prey. Time after time, they tried to trap Jesus, only to find themselves caught in the spiraling conundrums that flowed from their attempts. As often happens, the Gospel we hear today has multiple levels of significance.

Jesus must have enjoyed the rich irony of the group that marshaled to approach him that day; they were Herodians and disciples of the Pharisees — groups with significant ideological differences brought together because they chose to see Jesus as a rival.

The combination of these two groups intent on cornering Jesus made for great public theater. Like prosecuting attorneys, they planned to bamboozle him with a question about paying taxes: If he said, “Don’t pay,” he was rebelling against the Romans; if he advised payment, he was affirming the Roman right to collect a hated tax — something like the British tax of 1773 that led to the Boston Tea Party. Unfortunately for them, Jesus was quick on his feet and led them to get snared in their own trap. 

He said, “Show me the money!” Money always talks. In this case, when one of them produced the type of Roman currency required for paying that much-loathed tax, the coin made a visual announcement that at least one of those purists was walking around with a portrait of Caesar in his purse. That coin not only had an image, but it bore the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.” That announced that the holder was ready to comply with the tax and also carried a “graven image” of a false God: flagrant violations of God’s command. (In the Catholic list of the 10, this is part of the first commandment; in the usual Protestant version it is the second.) Simply by showing Jesus the coin they had, they incriminated themselves both of being compliant with Rome and as breaking the law of God. This much of the entertainment is obvious. 

Now for the spiraling conundrum. Jesus asked, “Whose image (literally icon) is there?” When they identified Caesar, he said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God, what belongs to God.” That short interchange included two key points.

First, “icon” is the word used in Genesis to speak of human beings created as images of God. Genesis 1:26-27 uses the word icon three times as it teaches that male and female are created in the divine image. Hearing the question, “whose image?” created an echo of Genesis in the minds of anyone steeped in the scriptures, reminding them that every person is an august icon of God.

Second, the word, “render,” means more than “pay” or even “repay.” It implies that the person in question is handing over something very personal — this isn’t just a random silver dollar; “rendering” something indicates that the givers are handing over a bit of themselves and admitting that the receiver has the right to it. This raises the question of what really belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Because Jesus had brought Genesis to mind, the answer was obvious: Everything is part of God’s creation, destined to be consecrated to God’s purpose.

Just like Charlie Brown running toward Lucy, the team of Pharisees and Herodians fell into Jesus’ trap and were left sprawling. Instead of forcing Jesus’ hand, the evidence they produced implicated them in the very transgressions they were trying to pin on Jesus. He, in turn, had transformed their interrogation into a proclamation of God’s unique sovereignty.

Note: In the process of taking the lead role in this skit, Jesus didn’t really answer his opponents’ question — at least not directly. He taught unequivocally that love of God and neighbor summarize the human vocation, but he avoided giving details about how love should be incarnated in particular situations — the only hard and fast rule would be love.

As disciples who realize that Jesus did not give a definitive answer, we need to revisit the scene, seeking what the incident teaches. Avoiding meticulous mandates, Jesus invites us to deeper considerations. By recalling Genesis and the human vocation to be icons of the divine, he calls forth our creativity. While he does not give us hard and fast rules, he promises to be there for us, more trustworthy than Lucy, sending the Spirit who helps us learn better than Charlie.

First Reading

(Isaiah 45: 1,4-6)

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before him,
and making kings run in his service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,
I have called you by your name,
giving you a title, though you knew me not.
I am the LORD and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun
people may know that there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, there is no other.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10)

R. Give the Lord glory and honor.

Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R. Give the Lord glory and honor.

For great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
awesome is he, beyond all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are things of nought,
but the LORD made the heavens.
R. Give the Lord glory and honor.

Give to the LORD, you families of nations,
give to the LORD glory and praise;
give to the LORD the glory due his name!
Bring gifts, and enter his courts.
R. Give the Lord glory and honor.

Worship the LORD, in holy attire;
tremble before him, all the earth;
say among the nations: The LORD is king,
he governs the peoples with equity.
R. Give the Lord glory and honor.

Second Reading

(I Thessalonians 1: 1-5b)

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you,
remembering you in our prayers,
unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love
and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,
before our God and Father,
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God,
how you were chosen.
For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.


(Mathew 22: 15-21)

The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”