Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Week 9 Tuesday (Year 1)

Readings: Tobit 2:9-14; Psalm 112; Mark 12:13-17

Today's readings present us with two men under pressure, Tobit and Jesus. Tobit has gone blind as a result of bird droppings falling into his eyes. Some years have passed since then, and he and his wife are having difficulties making ends meet. He is a man of scrupulous integrity, not prepared to compromise in any way his observance of the law. His wife, Anna, seems to be at her wit's end, doing what she can to keep family life going. When she brings in a goat she has received as a gift Tobit is suspicious and wants to have nothing to do with it in case it is stolen property. She speaks to him in much the same way as his wife spoke to Job, asking their men to be reasonable, but they are not for compromising. 'If we receive happiness from God's hand, must we not accept suffering too', Job says to his wife. 'Your true character is showing itself', Anna says to Tobit - in other words your pig-headedness and unreasonable scrupulosity.

Jesus is under pressure in another way. Pharisees and Herodians come to trap him in his speech. Beginning with flattery (what the Irish will recognise immediately as plámás) they then question him about paying taxes to Caesar. If he says 'pay' he is in one kind of trouble, if he says 'don't pay' he is in a different kind of trouble. Instead, and as usual, he takes the ground from beneath their feet and changes the basis of the question completely. Whose image is on the coin to be paid? Caesar's. Then give Caesar what is his. And give God what is His.

Sometimes this has been taken to mean that human life and affairs can be divided between a realm that belongs to Caesar (the state, political matters) and a realm that belongs to God (the Church, religion). But there is something wrong about the idea that there might be an area of human life that does not belong to God. And Jesus endorses our suspicion by what he says. Not explicitly, but very clearly.

If whatever bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar then whatever bears the image of God belongs to God. What is there that bears the image of God? If the image of Caesar is found on coins, where is the image of God to be found? We know from the Bible that it is the human being that bears the image of God. So it is the human being that belongs to God. And this cannot mean only some parts or aspects or activities of the human being, it must mean the human being in his or her entirety, in all her activities and relationships, in all his projects and commitments. It must mean also each and every single human being since no distinction is made: each and every one is created in the image and likeness of God.

It is a supremely clever answer. While seeming to divide human affairs between two masters Jesus does exactly the opposite, relativising our loyalty to 'Caesar' while acknowledging it, making it abundantly clear that such loyalty is always within a deeper, more all-embracing, and transcendent loyalty, that which is given to God alone. Give to God what belongs to God: in other words, everything.

Job and Tobit recognize this supreme demand of the law of God, its claim beyond all human laws and beyond all human compromises. They fumble a bit perhaps in trying to explain and defend it. But in the teaching of Jesus it is crystal clear. And in Jesus' service of the Father, whose perfect image he is, it is given its most powerful explanation and defence.


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