Give to Caesar What Is Caesar's and to God What Is God's

Oct. 22, 2023

You will often hear people describe the Bible as a book of answers. I see it, rather, as a book of questions. This is especially true when we are reading some of Jesus’ responses to His foes, and His parables. Rather than coming away with a clear sense of what Jesus is teaching, we are left scratching our heads and wondering what on earth He means. Even when He gives us some clear answer, it often opens up a whole new set of questions for us.

In the Gospel for today, the Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up in His speech so that they can turn the crowds away from Him and even bring down on Him the wrath of the Romans. They ask Him if it is lawful to pay taxes to the Romans or not. These taxes will be sent back to Rome to pay for Roman roads, Roman buildings, Roman soldiers, and Roman officials. The Pharisees said that it should not be paid, for any engagement with the Romans would be rendered unclean. The Sadducees said that it should be paid. Whichever way He answers, He will be in trouble with someone. If He says not to pay, the Romans have an excuse to arrest Him and throw Him into prison as a threat.

Jesus asks them for one of the coins that is used to pay the tax. The Pharisees hand Him a Roman coin, which shows them to be hypocrites, for they are not even supposed to touch these coins, for they are made unclean by merely possessing it. He then asks whose image is on the coin. They answer, “Caesar’s.” He then says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” WHAT?

What is Caesar’s and what is God’s? Jesus does not explain Himself, leaving the Pharisees and the Sadducees confused and befuddled. But He also leaves us confused and befuddled. What do we owe to Caesar, and what do we owe to Christ?
   
I think that Christ makes clear that we owe support to government, even a government like the Romans, whom one considers illegitimate. That isn’t what we want to hear, but it seems to be so. The teaching of the Church tells us that there is a very real role for government, and that we each owe some level of allegiance to that government. We are part of a community that is larger than ourselves. Some things government can do that individuals, or even groups, cannot do. Roads, public schools, and hospitals are examples. There is a need for a police force and for an army to protect citizens. In emergencies, churches and other groups must do their part, but a well-organized government will often be necessary.
   
But we owe our souls and our lives to God. If the demands of government clash with the commandments of God, we must choose God, even if that puts us at odds with government. When there is a representative government, as we have in the United States, then we are responsible to make sure that we vote according to God’s truths and values, and if we serve in government, we represent God first. We do not try to use our position in government to promote a particular religion, but we do seek to make sure that government acts according to the truths revealed to us by God. In this Pro-Life month, we are especially conscious that to actively support abortion and other forms of unjust killing of innocent human life is seriously sinful.
   
This will always be one of those teachings that requires careful discernment to live out fully.
--Fr. Mike Comer

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