“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
This question, we are told, is asked not out of a desire for truth, but out of malice toward Jesus. These are religious people asking the question – not secularists. The question is whether or not obedience to civil authority has any place within the spiritual and religious life of the community. It is not simply how are we supposed to live in a secular society or how we are to keep Church and State separate, as some will argue.
Very often we may look at the world as divided for us between our “public” realm and “private.” Our political, social, entertainment, and other worldly preferences belong to that “public” world; while our religion, spirituality, morals, and prayer life belong to the “private” world that we each possess. This can lead to a sense of psychic schizophrenia for the person who wants to dwell and operate in both of these worlds.
However, this question posed to Jesus today – and more importantly His answer – places everything in a very clear light for us; and this should be very helpful when we live in a time of so many divided loyalties and accusations of faithlessness.
“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
This response calls us back to a most basic question of faith: Who made you? Why did God make you? Whom do we serve? Speaking to the Persian emperor Cyrus, the Lord says “I have called you by your name. … I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me.” Bishop Robert Barron, a brilliant American churchman, points out that God does not exist in competition with the world – as if one of these realms is opposed to the other. He writes, “God is God, not a being in or above the world, not one reality among many. God is the sheer act of being itself, which necessarily pervades, influences, grounds, and has to do with everything, even as he transcends everything in creation. God is the deepest source and inspiration for everything in life, from sports to law to the arts to science and medicine. God is love itself. Everything comes from God and returns to God.”
The Pharisees’ question of Jesus seeks to place God and the world at odds, and they desire to place Jesus in the middle of that conflict. However, their very trap is itself prophetic, since Jesus is at that crossroads of God and man – of divinity and humanity – of heaven and earth – of eternity and history. This particular confrontation offers us a beautiful insight into God’s relationship with the world He has create, and Jesus Himself is the key to understanding it.
Christ’s response does not place Him in opposition to the worldly powers, as he doesn’t even deny the legitimacy of taxes; nor does He contradict the spiritual duty that we owe to God, since He commands us to “give to God what belongs to God.” However, even more than that, Jesus envelopes that conflict in a divine perspective. What belongs to God? Everything belongs to God – my life, my relationality, my conscience, my love, my faith, my family, my loyalty, my service. If we truly believe this, then the question becomes even more absurd. Of course, we should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. However, everything belongs to God. When we live our lives faithful to that realization, then everything begins to fall into its proper place.
During an election year, this Gospel message can often be thrown around. But how often is it the Pharisees’ question that we hear, rather than Christ’s response? And do we really understand Christ’s answer? If everything belongs to God, we begin to see everything in a new light. We don’t change hearts by using Caesar’s tools. Hearts can only be touched by the One to whom they truly belong. When that happens, we see that our society begins to change – to be transformed – into a place where the good of the human person is the guiding principle, and Jesus is the measure of real power and success.
Then, we can proclaim with all our brothers and sisters the words of our Psalm:
Give to the Lord, you families of nations,
give to the Lord glory and praise;
give to the Lord the glory due his name!
Bring gifts, and enter his courts.
Worship the Lord, in holy attire; tremble before him, all the earth;
say among the nations: The Lord is king,
he governs the peoples with equity.