Give to Caesar . . . Give to God
Matthew 22: 15 - 21
A number of years ago I pastored a parish that enjoyed a local farm family with 15 children. One thing was for certain; there was a definite family resemblance that ran through all the children and youth who were a mixture of grade, high school and college age youth. You knew what their family name was and all you had to do was look at any of them to know what “clan” they belonged to. That is, with the exception of one of the older boys. As far as I could tell he didn’t look anything like his brothers or sisters. Meeting the family for the first time, I thought he was a friend of one of the older boys but soon was corrected and told, nope he’s one of us. A roll of the genetic dice I suppose. Whose image do we show?
Many things may run through our minds here in light of the Gospel this Sunday. In a clear effort to entrap Jesus, the Herodians and Pharisees join forces to pose a question to Jesus that would reveal on whose side he really was – or so they thought.
He is first insincerely complimented by his questionnaires: “Are we or are we not permitted to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor?” If Jesus said “no” you should not pay the census tax, then he would anger the Romans and side with those rebels whose intent was to bring down Rome. If he said “yes” then he would challenge the very Commandment to the Torah to have no other God’s before you by siding with the Romans and their brutal occupation of Israel. For imprinted on the coin they showed Jesus was the clear image of Caesar and an inscription which claimed his divinity.
A trick? Yes, but Jesus sees right through it. For Tiberius claimed divinity as the coin they showed to Jesus stated on it. What does Jesus do in this apparent attempt to finally trap him?
They approach him with a near sickening flattery that has no one fooled, let alone Jesus. “Show me the coin, “Jesus stated. As Pharisees, being representatives of the Sacred Law, they should have no such graven image in their pockets let alone in their hands. Still, someone does although it isn’t stated who but the very fact that it is produced for Jesus proves their complicity. They possess the coin which pays the census tax, which reveals their complicity with Rome.
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God,” our Lord responds. In typical Jewish practice, Jesus answers their question with a question then changes the whole focus of their confrontation. Wouldn’t you love to have been there to see the expression on the face of Jesus’ interrogators? Out of the blue, he turns the cards on them and does not answer their question but rather reveals their motive.
Yet, there is likely no other line Jesus spoke that Christians have wrestled with its meaning. What is Cesare’s? What is God’s? How wealthy can the Church be and what about the right use of money in light of our Christian faith? We modern American’s may point to this as a classic example of the separation of church and state but its meaning has nothing to do with our American Constitution. It is far more about our right relationship in the human community and the one God, who is Lord. One example may help to answer the question as to what belongs to who.
If we compare God’s image upon humanity, as we are created “in the image and likeness of God,” and Caesar’s image on the coin it may help to put things perspective. The ancients knew that every coin looked the same. Every denarius had the same image of Caesar and every inscription claimed his divinity. Uniformity and repetition was paramount yet it reminds us that the power of “Caesar” is limited.
On the other hand, every human created with the image of God is unique. We don’t look the same, we don’t walk in lock step uniformity and each human person has a unique individuality that reflects the limitless power of God over all things. Creation is the same. A tree is a tree but not every tree is identical. A mountain is a mountain but each mountain bears a unique shape. And so on. To God is owed all things because he is Lord of all.
So to whom do we owe what? As citizens of a nation we have responsibilities of good citizenship of course and to determine what is “Caesars,” that is taxes, obedience to law and order, good citizenship, and patriotism is pretty clear. Government officials have a legitimate authority to protect its citizens and we work for the common good of all in this Country. We all know how fortunate we are to have a say in our own governing. Yet that power is limited and uniformly applied, we hope, like the money we carry.
But the things of God have no limit for to imagine what does not belong to God is to challenge our belief that all is gift and all is grace. All authority ultimately comes from him. Our first reading from Isaiah today reminds us how God used the pagan Babylonian King Cyrus as an instrument to return the exiled people to Israel: “I have called you by your name, and given you a title, though you knew me not.”
We human beings belong to God for as money is printed in the image of an earthly nation we human beings are created in the image of God. Therefore it may be not so difficult to recognize that when it comes to our human obligations to our government pitted at times against those that call us to Christian discipleship, we find a tension, especially now as we find ourselves in another very crucial election year.
It should be for us a matter of how the human person is recognized, respected, protected, and honored by our government. If we live in a culture which looks at life as more pragmatic rather than as sacred, then our allegiance must be always to the higher moral standard which God has established. As the poor, the elderly, the frail, the unborn child the innocent are all unable to support and protect themselves are ignored or dismissed, then we rise to make a difference and speak to “Caesar” so that laws can be changed. We give to God what is God’s. If the sanctity of the marriage covenant is seen as not what God intended, then we must choose what God is owed not what is popular or political.
We are called to good citizenship and to make a contribution to the good of our society. Yet our faith can be a valid contribution to contribute to the common good and is a gift we have to bring in the marketplace and not from the fringes. Pope Francis, for example, has made it starkly clear that the poor and vulnerable among us cannot be ignored by our secular governments.
So, while we may separate our allegiance to State and Church we cannot live as dual citizens – one way for one and another way for the other; one way in Church and another in the public place. The choice must be ours. We are Catholic/Christians who live in a secular culture and we cannot compromise the things of God for the things of Caesar. As citizens of a Nation life stops here when we are gone. But as citizens of the kingdom of God, we go on beyond this world where our total giving will be for God alone. So, whose image do we follow?
Grant, O Lord, we pray,
that, benefiting from participation in heavenly things,
we may be helped by what you give in this present age
and prepared for the gifts that are eternal
Through Christ our Lord.
(Prayer after Communion)