Throughout his life Jesus was embroiled in political controversy. No sooner was he born when Herod, a routine menace of a petty local tyrant, wanted him eliminated as a threat to his authority, based on prophetic messages he had received from his experts and the visit of the Magi. During his public ministry, we read accounts of how Jesus had to pass quickly through crowds bent on apprehending or killing him. Ultimately, his crucifixion was a political execution, detailed in the judgment scenes by the evangelists. Pilate’s, Judas’ and the high priests’ maneuvers are blatantly political. Plenty of blame to throw around without fingering one actor or party, to be sure. But, nonetheless, a political game. Jesus was a threat to power brokers because he liberated their constituencies from their power, their ability to intimidate and control them.

In last Sunday’s Gospel, the Pharisees attempt to engage the Herodians as sparring partners to entrap Jesus into a no-win situation: to take a position on an occupied people, the Jews, and whether they were to submit to taxes levied by the Roman emperor. The census tax was particularly vexing and oppressive.

To put it in contemporary terms, the Pharisees were conservative on obedience to tradition and Mosaic law and resisted what they saw as infringements on their religious liberty by the Roman state. The Herodians took a more liberal position of accommodation to the occupiers, preferring to “reach across the aisle,” so to speak, in the hopes of avoiding confrontation and further limitations to their freedoms. Both, however, were playing politics.

Jesus, by the way, was already a controversial figure because certain messianic characterizations attributed to his teachings and activities exacerbated the old debate as to who or what exactly the Messiah would be. Some thought that he would be a very political figure who would restore the autonomy of the Jewish people and even vanquish infidels like the pagan Romans, instituting a theocracy. Many Pharisees would be of such a persuasion as to hope for this political liberator. They wanted Jesus to take a side. Their side. They were playing politics.

Jesus answers, but completely shifts the focus. He does not challenge the authority of Caesar over his own coinage, suggesting in a way that his interrogators had already submitted to it. Note how quickly they produce the coin from their pockets when Jesus asks for one. Jesus has already exposed their hypocrisy, calling their bluff. Their behavior exposes their duplicity. In his response, however, Jesus does more than just call them out. He actually proposes a way forward by calling them to conscience: as they question him on what is owed to Caesar, are they as mindful of their duty to God? Jesus lifts them out of the purely political arena and shows them a way to be free of playing politics.

The highly politicized climate in which we live draws us into a way of thinking at times in which we often react very much as pawns to the devices of political figures that, typically, manipulate us through fear and alienation. This is the native language of all tyrants: divide and conquer, inspire fear and hatred of apparent rivals. The enmity that we see between races, sexes and economic classes pits people against one another and paints the political class as our savior.

Our faith offers a liberating alternative. In the early pages of Genesis, we learn that we are created in the image and likeness of God. We also read how our first parents were at peace, with God and nature and each other. The serpent disrupts this harmony by turning us against God and ultimately each other, suggesting God is somehow usurping power that belongs to us. This, of course, is a reflection, a projection of Satan’s own pride, his contempt for God as a creature of God.

How much this rebellious and contentious attitude contrasts with that of the Incarnate Word. Jesus, fully God and man, is and remains united with his heavenly Father: “I and the Father are one.” His mission is “to do the will of the one who sent me.” This is rooted in the oneness of the Trinitarian mystery. God is revealed to us not as a single, all-powerful figure with dominion over his creatures but as a community of co-equal persons, madly in love and eternally revolving around each other. The difference of persons does not lead to rivalry, conflict or jealousy, but a sharing of each other’s fullness.

In a particularly moving passage of Scripture, St. Paul speaks of how God subjects all the powers of this world to Jesus, making him invulnerable to the disruptive powers of evil, and then giving this same Jesus to the us, his Church, which is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). What this tells us is that we, as the body of Christ, as his Church, are the gift of the Father to Jesus! We are the fulfillment of his own destiny, the pride and joy of the One —Jesus — who is himself the Father’s pride and joy. How Trinitarian! But is not that what it means to say that we are made in the image and likeness of God?

What makes us God-like is that we are made not for ourselves alone, but for one another. Before the fall, Adam and Eve were innocent to their nakedness because their difference was not an obstacle or an embarrassment to their personal identity. They were, in God’s and one another’s presence, completely in peace and harmony. What this tells us is that we are made for one another, not just ourselves. Our differences, be they racial, sexual, talent-related or linked to any other aspect of our giftedness, are meant to complement one another: we are all connected as members of the mystical body of Christ and each of us has an essential part to play in God’s plan to save us.

Another way of understanding our human identity is to affirm that God is saving us through us, as members of one another, with Christ as our head. This is how St. Paul views the Church — not so much as a place we go to, but as a reality that we are. In this spiritual communion we reflect what each of us is personally as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, which means a Trinitarian God, a community of co-equal persons. We are intimately connected. No person is purely an individual, isolated, without a connection to God and our human family.

This vision of our true humanity lifts us out of the world of pure politics, where fear, rivalry and dominance are the commerce of power instead of cooperation, mutuality and love. There are no “elites” or privileged classes. Everyone leads. All are equal. It is the Holy Spirit, the Master of relationships, that helps the parts fit together. This theocentric — God-centered — vision of humanity, lost by our first parents in the Garden of Eden, is what Jesus restores as humanity’s Savior. Tyrants hate this because it renders them impotent. People who trust God and love one another do not need them, and are certainly not intimidated by them, because they are free and faithful to One alone, the God of love, in whose image and likeness they are created. Politics may play a role, but it does not become a religion, a substitute for God — not, of course, unless we submit to the temptation, playing the politics of the Ancient Foe.

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