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June 1, 2020
June 3, 2020

Homily for Tuesday of the 9th Week in Ordinary Time, 2 June 2020, Mark 12:13-17

When people from the media ask questions for an issue that is contentious, they do not always expect an answer. The decent ones among them usually respect the prerogative of the person they are asking whether to answer or not. Even silence is already an answer; in some instances it can be even more eloquent. It is ok to say “I don’t know,” or “Interesting question, can you give me some time to think about it?” Or if they want an interview, it need not be an ambushed one. You can say, “Perhaps you can send me the questions in advance by Email?” You can even add, “I hope you don’t mind that I answer only the questions I feel I am in a position to answer.” They are usually grateful enough that you replied and took them seriously. Like I said, even a no-reply is already a reply. And a “no comment” answer can be devastating reply.
But you will always encounter people like the ones Jesus is dealing with in the Gospel today, who are identified as Pharisees and Herodians: people who are not asking because they want to be clarified about the issue. People whose motive is not all that pure or sincere. People whose goal is to catch him like a fish—by the mouth, by trying to obtain a reply that they could use against him.
Jesus was a holy man, but that does not meant he was naive. Remember, he once warned his disciples to be “innocent as doves but clever as serpents”? There were instances when he responded to a question with silence, like he did with Herod Antipas. In other instances, he took time to gather his thoughts before giving an answer, like, remember that time when he wrote on the ground first before answering the question of the Pharisees on what to do with the woman they had caught in the act of adultery? There were also times when, instead of answering directly, he answered indirectly, using a parable.
In short, he knew how to use his discernment. Discernment is one of the important disciplines that I learned in my education and formation under the Jesuits of San Jose Seminary. I know that sometimes, in English, when people are unable to catch you by your mouth, they refer to you as “Jesuitic”—a term which is pejorative in the English vocabulary. It means negatively clever, cunning, crafty or wiley. In Tagalog the word used is “TUSO”.
I am inclined to believe that this pejorative reference to the Jesuits must have a historical background to it. You see, there was a point in history when they wielded so much influence in society and they were seen as a threat by some people in authority. I remember a line said by a governor in a movie about Jesuits, “Watch out for them because they can pull the rug under your feet without you realizing it.” Well, they were not called Companions of Jesus for nothing, I’d say it must be something they learned well from their Lord and Master.
I know of a mother who was amused to note the effect of Jesuit education on his son who is a college sophomore. Apparently, when she asks him a difficult question, he sometime answers with, “It depends.” Or at other times with a “Yes and No,” and proceeds to explain why it could be one or the other. Or sometimes, he answers a question with another question like, “Is there a proper context to the question? May I know where the question is coming from?”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is being asked, “Should we or should we not pay taxes to the Roman Government?” He immediately detects malice in the person who is asking, who prefaces his question by a string of flatteries, like, “We know that you are an honest man and that you are not concerned about anyone’s opinion. You do not regard a person’s status but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” I think Jesus is intelligent enough to distinguish between a sincere praise and a flattery. I imagine him saying in his mind, “Oh come on, don’t pull my leg, I wasn’t born yesterday.” (He doesn’t say it, of course.) It is people with a hungry ego who fall easily for a flattery.
Take note, he does not answer them with a yes or no. He does not even answer immediately. Instead, he asks for a coin and tells them to identify the face on it. Very clever. It gives him time to formulate his answer.
If he said yes, they should pay taxes to the Roman Government, it meant he was pro-Roman and he could get into trouble with the revolutionaries and nationalists. If he said no, he would get into trouble with the Roman authorities as a subversive.
Here’s how he answers, he says, “Give to to the Roman Emperor what you owe to the Roman Emperor, and give to God what you owe to God.” It sounded reasonable enough to the Romans. In fact, up to now, even legislators use it as basis for the so-called Constitutional doctrine of separation of Church and State.
As a Bible professor, I am amused, because the radical implication of Jesus’ reply is not lost on his Jewish audience. If they are asked the question, “What do you owe God?” Of course they are obliged to say, “Everything!” And if they owe everything to God, what do they owe the Roman government? NOTHING. But he gets away without even saying it explicitly. It takes time for them to digest it. And he has already left by the time they realize what he really meant.
You see, Jesus was not stupid. He didn’t give in too easily to manipulation. He had a way of exposing the malice of his interlocutors. Simeon was right in his prophecy when he said to Mary at the Presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple, “This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted. And you yourself a sword will pierce, so that the hidden thoughts of many hearts will be laid bare.”
We have just celebrated Pentecost. The good news is, if you have received the Holy Spirit, you have the necessary gift to be able to answer people who plant questions like booby traps, or lay them like stumbling blocks on your path. But if you see where you are being led, how could you allow yourself to trip and fall? Well, that depends on whether or not you have developed spiritual intelligence through a constant discipline of prayer and discernment.


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