At times we are tempted to wish that certain sayings of Jesus were lost or omitted from the Gospels. Jesus’ sharp answer to the Pharisees and Herodians in today’s Gospel might be one of these: “Repay [render] to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Taken out of context, it has been used to justify a “two-kingdom” theology, which divides life into two autonomous realms, the secular and the religious, or, worse, to justify unswerving obedience to secular authority.
Yet these views are far from Matthew’s meaning. The setting is a trap laid for Jesus by opponents. The precise issue is paying taxes, not the autonomy of Caesar in the secular sphere. Taxes were an incendiary issue during the lifetime of Jesus. The Roman Empire imposed a head tax on the population of Judea, Samaria and Idumea, and conducted a census to enforce it. Around A.D. 6, when Jesus was still young, Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the census, which was ruthlessly repressed by the Romans (Acts 5:37-38). The Pharisees, who resented the Roman occupation of the pure land of Israel, were against the tax, while the Herodians supported it. Together they are setting a trap for Jesus. He is faced with being either a collaborator or an insurrectionist.
With Solomonic sagacity seasoned with irony, Jesus traps the trappers. He asks for a coin which “they” give him. Roman coins contained the image of the emperor on one side—at this time the infamous Tiberius, with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus”—and on the other his title “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest). Since Matthew locates this incident in the temple area, the questioners are discredited from the start, because they have carried the image of a pagan emperor into the temple.
By answering, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus narrows his response to only the census tax and embodies his rejection of violence as a way of dealing with oppressive situations. The second half of the saying, “and to God what belongs to God,” is comprehensive and includes all areas of life.
The three disputes of Jesus in Matthew 22 culminate in the greatest commandments about loving God with one’s whole heart, mind and soul, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (next Sunday’s Gospel). Humans, not coins, bear God’s true image, and no edict of Caesar can absolve Jesus’ followers from this mandate to love God and see God in the neighbor.
Isaiah proclaims that God will bring the people back from the Babylonian exile by taking his “anointed” (messiah) by the hand. This messiah is Cyrus the Great (580-529 B.C.), whom God calls by name and to whom God gives a title, “though you know me not.” Neither Isaiah nor Jesus has a sectarian view of the corruption of society; both realize that God’s will can be accomplished even by those who “know me not.”
In every age Christians are faced with balancing the demands of Caesar with the commands of God. Catholics in the United States, as an immigrant and often suspect population, had a history of showing that they were “super-Americans,” more loyal than any other group, and they were unwilling to speak out against the government. In recent decades there has been a subtle shift as theologians and bishops have questioned government stands on issues of war and capital punishment.
On Sept. 17 Bishop Wilton Gregory, as president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, wrote a letter to President Bush raising questions about the justice of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. Sadly, though, the prophetic voice of the bishops is one of the victims of our season of shame and sorrow. Bishop Gregory’s statement was given only cursory notice by the media, and the consistent ethic of life was a casualty of the Dallas meeting. Governor Frank Keating, whom the bishops chose to monitor their compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, is an uncompromising supporter of the death penalty, in contrast to the recent statements of Pope John Paul II (The Gospel of Life, No. 56) and the revised edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The seamless garment of a consistent ethic of life lies in tatters on the floor of a Dallas hotel.
In the coming months and years, Catholics may be called on more and more to think about just what they should render to Caesar, and to recall that all Caesars and “messiahs” (Is. 45:1) are subordinate to God’s will. Paul summons his community at Thessalonica to persevere and grow in “the work of faith, the labor of love and endurance in hope.” What better way is there to repay to God what is truly God’s?