God and Caesar

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Matthew 22:15-21

At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” – Matthew 22:21

Repay to Caesar. Render unto Caesar. Whatever translation we use, this is one of Jesus’ best-known ‘one-liners’.  It has also been one of the most discussed and argued ‘one-liners’ that Jesus ever uttered.

What did Jesus mean?

Some people have argued that Jesus is suggesting a kind of separation of Church and state into two separate spheres or realms of human life. Church and state are each autonomous in their own realms, but one has no business in the other’s realm. This interpretation has a certain appeal in our largely secular culture, though the separation is often understood in an extreme way. The state’s realm is basically all of a person’s public life – be it work, education, politics, health care, or any other public activity. The Church’s realm is confined to one’s private life, as though faith were no different from stamp collecting or watching Star Trek reruns. The Church, in this view, has no place in the public sphere.

However, this recent interpretation cannot be what Jesus means here. A little later in this same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he quotes Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Mt 22:37)  After the Resurrection, when Jesus appears to his disciples, he will say, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mt 28:18) No radically separate realms of Church and state here. Jesus is the Pantocrator, as the Greek Church calls him – the ruler of all.

This does not mean that the state is – or should be – subservient to the Church. Paul in Romans 13, and Peter in I Peter 2, encourage Christians to respect civil authority and follow its rules where possible. (Ironically, however, both Peter and Paul would be put to death by the Emperor Nero.)

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at Jesus’ ‘one-liner’ in its context. That will help us see what it might mean, and what it doesn’t mean.

First of all, we are now in Holy Week. Jesus, this country rabbi from Galilee, has made a symbolic and provocative entry into the city by riding on a donkey – thus presenting himself as the long-awaited Son of David who has come to claim Jerusalem as his own city. Those who see themselves as the ones who are in charge – or, at least, those who see themselves as on the side of the ones in charge – are not pleased. Jesus is perceived as a threat to the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem. They see the appeal Jesus has among many of the people. However, he has come to their home turf. They are confident that they can discredit or embarrass him in front of the crowds at the Temple. After all, they are the elite, the well-educated. “Who is this carpenter’s son, anyway? What can he teach us?”, they must have wondered.

Therefore, Chapter 22 of Matthew’s Gospel is mainly a series of challenges that the elite of Jerusalem throw at Jesus. They do not believe in him, nor do they expect anything from him. They are trying to show that Jesus is not who the crowds think or hope he is.

Here, in our reading for this Sunday, we find some of the Pharisees and the Herodians confronting Jesus. Matthew tells us that they are not really asking a question in a way that seeks wisdom. They are trying to catch Jesus in what we might call today a “gotcha” question. They begin by going over the top in praising Jesus (though they are not sincere) in the hopes that by such flattery, they can catch him off guard when they ask their question.

The question they ask is not about taxes in general. It’s about a specific tax, the “census tax”, that the Romans imposed on the people of Israel in 6 AD. This tax could only be paid in Roman coin, the denarius. Being taxed by an occupying power was bad enough. However, the coin – or, more precisely, the inscription on the coin – was the real issue. The inscription was dedicated to Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, and high priest. For Jews who believed in one God, this was blasphemy. Accordingly, a revolt broke out in 6 AD against this tax. The Romans put it down with extreme cruelty, lining several roads in Israel with hundreds of crosses and leaving the bodies to rot on the crosses after death – just in case anyone missed the point.  This happened barely 25 years before our present scene.  As we might expect, no one in Israel had forgotten that time. The wounds were still fresh, and the feelings still bitter.

The Pharisees and Herodians, then, decide to risk opening up this wound in the hopes that Jesus would himself be wounded by it. (Such behavior is not unknown today.) They ask him if it is lawful (e.g. according to the Law of Moses) for them to pay the census tax. Immediately, everyone is quiet. And tense. What would Jesus say to that? The Pharisees and Herodians believe that Jesus has no way out. If Jesus counsels people to pay the tax, he will seem to be showing disrespect to all those who died resisting it, and thus many people would turn against Jesus. If Jesus counsels against paying the tax, he will seem to be advocating sedition and rebellion, and so they can accuse Jesus before the Roman authorities.

What is Jesus’ response?

It is not a way to sidestep the issue, as some have said. After all, Jesus knows full well that he will soon be put to death – in a matter of days at this point. Jesus’ response is, in its context, one of breathtaking courage and brilliance. He manages to call his questioners on their motives, and to reframe the question into the one they should have been asking all along.

How does Jesus do this?

First of all, he asks to see the coin used to pay the tax. The denarius. The one with the blasphemous inscription. They show it to him instantly, not realizing what they have just done. Here they are, seemingly all concerned about the Law of Moses, and yet they have this blasphemous coin in the very Temple of God itself.  By asking for the coin and holding it up for all to see, Jesus shows to all the hypocrisy of his opponents and pulls the rug out from under them. The deception has already failed, and miserably.

But Jesus is not finished.

He asks, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s”, they respond, perhaps now beginning to realize that they have now given the game away by their own words.

Then Jesus says, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…”.  In other words, since you seem more than willing to play Caesar’s game by having this coin, how can you object to paying the price of the game?

But Jesus still isn’t finished.

He then says, maybe after a pause, “And to God what belongs to God”. In other words, they should be spending less time and energy playing Caesar’s game, and even less time and energy resisting God, but should be concerned, above all, for all that belongs to God. And what belongs to God? Everything. “All your heart, all your soul, all your mind”. Yes, Christians are called to be good citizens of whatever nation they call their earthly home. However, that good citizenship can never cause Christians to betray their faith in Christ or their belonging to the Church (essentially, these two are one).

This is, of course, easier said than done. There is the example of St. Thomas More, whose final years in this life were the focus of the play and the movie A Man For All Seasons. Thomas More strove to honor, as best he could, his duties to God and King – until the King wanted him to do something that violated his Catholic faith. Then Thomas had to stand firm, even at the cost of his earthly life. There is the example of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant in the 1930’s who refused to show up for military service when drafted by the Nazis, despite many threats, until he was arrested and put to death. The people of his village became very divided over him, and remained so for decades. His own pastor and bishop accused him of neglecting his responsibilities to family and country. Then again, how often have people – even Christian people – been divided over someone who ended up being revered as a saint? Even Francis of Assisi and the early Franciscans were the subjects of a great deal of hostility from some Catholics in their time!

Then, there is the example of you and me. How do we negotiate life, as Catholic Christians, in a secular culture? Some features of our culture are in harmony with our Catholic faith; others are definitely not.  When do we respect the state and honor its leaders, and when do we need to resist, or  offer some alternate way based on our faith? Even at the risk of misunderstanding or persecution?

Because Jesus was confronted with people who were not looking for wisdom (but for the gotcha), he did not explain things to the Pharisees and Herodians. However, he has given us plenty of resources. We have Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Matthew, especially the Sermon on the Mount. We have Jesus’ teachings in all the Gospels, and indeed, all of Scripture. We have Church doctrine on many subjects, as well as Catholic social teaching, all of which apply Jesus’ teaching to the challenges of our time. We have the example of many Christians throughout the centuries who faced similar challenges in their own time and place. We are also guaranteed the presence of the Spirit. Jesus assures us at the end of Matthew’s Gospel that he is with us always (Mt 28:20). We have one another for support and counsel. We are never left on our own.

The ultimate question for us is this: whose coin do we carry with us? Whose image? Are we, in the final analysis, subjects of Caesar and play by Caesar’s rules, or do we belong to Christ and live by faith and love? Christ warned us that no one can serve two masters. It’s extremely exhausting to even try to do so. A divided heart does no one any favors. Only by believing that we bear Christ’s inscription in our hearts will we find the grace and joy that we need to find our way in this world while witnessing to Christ in all things.