God and Caesar

In today’s Gospel we hear how the Scribes and the Pharisees tried to set a nasty trap for Jesus by asking ‘Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ It was a question about one’s civic duty. If Jesus had said yes, he could have been accused of collaborating with a foreign government that was oppressive. If he had said no, he could have been accused of being a revolutionary and thus giving his enemies a chance of having him arrested.

But Jesus did not bite on the trap that was set for him. His reply was ingenious, ‘…give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’ What Jesus meant here is that we are citizens of two worlds – the world we see and the unseen world. We have duties to both. Part of being people of faith is to be a responsible citizen of one’s own country. This means obeying the just laws of the state and this includes the paying of reasonable taxes. Governments need a certain amount of capital to be able to run the territory that they are responsible for. When we contribute to this, we also give honour to God.

Therefore, when we talk about two worlds, we are not talking about two worlds which are in dichotomy with one another since all authority ultimately comes from God. This is affirmed in this Sunday First Reading from the prophet Isaiah where the Persian King Cyrus is told by the Lord, ‘It is for the sake of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name, conferring a title though you do not know me.’ This was something that Jesus would clarify later in his face to face encounter with Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate was the highest ranking authority in the land at the time when Jesus was brought before him but Jesus told him, ‘you would have no authority had it not been given to you from above.’ This recognizes that all human authority is merely a mirror of sharing in the power of God. Therefore, we give Caesar his due but ultimately all power and authority flows from God.

This means we are to avoid two extremes. The first extreme is to treat politics as the be all and end all. The second extreme is when a person thinks I only need to follow God. I do not need to follow any human authority. Living for us is not a matter of either supporting the Government or supporting the Church. Whilst we are called to love God and our neighbour, we do this in the context of contributing to a broader society.

When we joyfully give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, we become light and leaven in the society in which we live.