There were nine who started the journey. Some of them knew each other before, some who had just met. They were on a mission together, a desperate mission. They weren’t bound together by family or other formal commitment, they were only bound by a common cause. They were called The Fellowship of the Ring.
Their journey was dangerous, however as they traveled together they learned a lot, about the world around them, their history, their cultures, and each other. They had to cope with death together when they lost Gandalf in the mines of Moria, and Boromir tried to take the Ring for himself. In spite of the difficulties and weaknesses, they formed a bond that lasted beyond their time together. Even though they were at a distance, they always thought of one another, and always helped each other as they could. Many times they literally laid down their lives for each other. When they gathered again at the end of the last battle, their reunion celebrated the promise of better world.
The encounter in today’s gospel reading is quite interesting. Having the Pharisees and the Herodians work together is like saying Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton decided to cooperate against someone. It seems whichever answer Jesus gives to the question is going to alienate him from a segment of Jewish society. If he says paying the Roman tax is against Jewish law, he sets himself up as a rebel, and probably gets arrested almost immediately since he is in Jerusalem during Passover week, and the Romans are there in force looking for troublemakers. If he says paying the tax is acceptable, then he appears to be a collaborator with the Romans.
Jesus’ answer is a masterpiece of diplomacy. The Romans provided the Jews with special copper coins to use in everyday commercial transactions because they knew the Jews found coinage with the image of an Emperor of claiming him of God would be repugnant to them. For one of Jesus’ audience to have a Roman coin with the inscription is a major faux pas. An observant Jew would not carry such a coin. Jesus’ comment, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” provides a Third Way answer to a question that seemed black-and-white, showing there was an honorable way to live as an ordinary citizen without rebelling or collaborating.
I think there is a catch to Jesus observation, however. What truly belongs to Caesar? Isn’t it God who created everything? It does tell us our first loyalty, the most important thing in our lives is Christ, and there is nothing that takes precedence over it. We can have other commitments, to country, to our work, to our friends, or to our families, and we can live up to these commitments while remaining Christian as long as these loyalties don’t come before Christ.
The first reading from Isaiah talks about God choosing a pagan ruler, Cyrus, who does not know him to be the instrument of his plan. God can work through anyone, even those who do not know him. The Quest to destroy the Ring wouldn’t have succeeded without Gollum, even though he didn’t want it to succeed. That gives us a challenge: if we shut someone out simply because we don’t think they are not on our side, we shut out the possibility of God giving us something through them. It means we can be loyal active citizens without compromising our main allegiance to Christ.
God calls us all to this table we share in Christ. Christ calls us to keep our eyes open to what’s going on around us, because we never know who God may be working through, even someone we think is wrong, someone we think is against us, even someone we may be uncomfortable with. Our sharing here, the journey we make together, particularly the journey of education we’ve shared with each other, is a bond, a bond in Christ. Although we’re human and have to deal with each other’s human weaknesses, we strengthen each other as we travel through life, whether we’re together or we’re apart. We are called to be part of the world around us, to serve the common good, to be citizens of our country. But most important of all, we belong to Christ together, and that is the most important thing in our lives.