Matthew 22:15-21
'Fortiter' . . . 'suaviter' by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with the permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

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"  When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

In setting their trap for Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians begin with flattery: “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.” (Mt 22:16)  Now, that last sentence may not seem particularly flattering.  It makes Our Lord sound insensitive and callous.  Other translations bring this out even more.  In one they say, “neither carest thou for any (man): for thou regardest not the person of men.”  Odd flattery, that.  So what does it mean?

On one hand, the Pharisees and Herodians – flatterers that they are – have seized on a truth: Our Lord does not change or dilute His teaching to please His listeners.  On many occasions Our Lord’s words disappoint and/or infuriate people.  But their anger does not prompt Him to change His teaching.  He came to testify to the truth (cf. Jn 18:37), and that cannot be done by a man who says only what people want to hear.  In short, Our Lord is not a slave to human respect.  He does not allow ridicule, rejection and persecution to deter Him from the truth.

On the other hand, we should be suspicious of the words of praise from Our Lord’s enemies
They drip with insincerity.  In a certain way indeed their words are manifestly false: Our Lord’s incarnation considers our situation and status most graciously.  He Who is beyond our capacity to comprehend or know comes to us in our human nature and speaks to us in human words and actions.  He does indeed regard our status.  He does in fact respect our status – in the sense that He proportions His manner of teaching to our human weakness.  He does not run roughshod over us or place His truth beyond our reach.  He comes to us in our weakness.

In short, Jesus is firm in the content of His teaching but gracious in the communication of it.  Fortier in re, suaviter in modo.  So goes the old Latin adage: Strong in matter, gentle in manner.  In this He sets the standard.  We should be strong about what we believe, but peaceful, gracious and courteous in the living out of it.  Catholic dogma is, in the end, for the salvation of souls – to bring each soul the peace of God.  We should live our faith in a way consonant with the peace it is meant to bring.

This principle holds tenfold for our efforts in evangelization: We must communicate the truth in a gracious manner.  Strong in truth, gentle in communication.  We should neither wilt at disagreement or even persecution, nor should we clobber people over the head at the first sign of resistance.  It is not enough for us to communicate the truth.  It is not enough for the content to be correct.  We must also communicate in a manner that our listeners can receive, that is proportioned to their situation.  The truth of God’s grace ought to be communicated graciously.

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