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Jesus is confronted with a partisan trap in the Gospel this Sunday, the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time. To get out of it, he utters a phrase that has shaped the world we live in — a phrase whose full implications most of us still need to apply to our lives.
He tells both parties to give “Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus faces a trap set by the pro-tax Herodians and the anti-tax Pharisees. The Herodians are probably Jews who compromised with the Roman government of the time. The Pharisees are the party of strict morality and greater resistance to the government.
The Pharisees “sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians,” and after flattering him, ask “Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
If Jesus sides with the Herodians, the Pharisees will peg him as a sort of left-wing radical, unpatriotic and too friendly to the “big government” of Rome. If he sides with the Pharisees, the Herodians will say he is a right-wing radical, provoking a fight and unwilling to compromise for the common good.
But Jesus doesn’t side with either. He points out a Roman coin and says it belongs to the one whose image is stamped there, Caesar.
In the same way, of course, we need to give God what is stamped in his image — every human being.
The reading from St. Paul shows whose image and likeness we are made in. He greets his readers “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That is who we are. We are the ones for whom the Gospel “did not come in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”
The Gospel and the Trinity are not just something we believe in, but something we live in — and that lives in us. Paul says we are “brothers and sisters loved by God,” and “chosen.” We didn’t choose him; he chose us, marked us as his, and forms us with his grace to be more ever more like him.
Since what we render to God is our very life, we can never separate it from what we render to Caesar.
The first reading gives a remarkable example of this principle. Isaiah describes a Gentile ruler, Cyrus, who is called the Lord’s “anointed.” Cyrus “grasped” the Lord’s hand, which is what a king would do to his chosen idol in a coronation ceremony. Cyrus is described as allying himself with the one true God. Cyrus is a “Caesar” who is nonetheless the Lord’s. Though he is a Gentile, his role is to expand God’s kingdom for the Chosen race.
“I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not,” God tells him. “It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me.”
Like Cyrus, our government also exists in God’s world and is subject to his truth.
We are accustomed to thinking of what we render to God as being our “private” business and what we render to the government being our “public” activity. We think that we need to close the two areas off from each other.
That is not how God sees it. To him,“The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated,” as Pope Benedict put it in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Commenting on today’s Gospel, he points out that “Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics,” and that “here, politics and faith meet.”
He spells out the interplay between the two spheres this way:
“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state. Yet at the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.”
He added: “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation.”
The Christian’s job isn’t to wall church and state off from each other, but to see that both belong ultimately to God, who is known through faith.
That’s a harder job. It means our ultimate loyalty has to be to principles, not parties.
Jesus’s answer to the two groups that face him down doesn’t make either side happy. The Herodians hate Jesus because he is a threat to the government; the Pharisees hate him because he is a threat to their religious regime.
Our activity in public life should also anger both sides. For instance, the Church lists four sins that cry out to heaven, and they represent both “right wing” and “left wing” issues. Says the Catechism:
“There are ‘sins that cry to heaven’: the blood of Abel, the sin of the Sodomites, the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner.”
The “blood of Abel” is a reference to the murder of a family member, just like abortion — which Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops agree is the preeminent issue of our time. The “sin of the Sodomites” is a direct condemnation of the current practice of homosexual marriage. Political conservatives are bothered by these things, and so is God.
On the other hand, the “cry of the people oppressed in Egypt” is a reference to the Hebrew slaves and, by extension, the unjust economic treatment of workers today. The “cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan” is a reference to refugees and other marginalized people. Political liberals are bothered by these things, and God is too.
Catholics should agree with God — and expect to upset people on both sides of the aisle. We are not stamped by the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or any political ruler. We are stamped by God and are his alone.
The other challenge of the Gospel is in how we treat political opponents. They are stamped by God, also.
With the rise of relativism and the disappearance of a shared truth that we all seek and honor, political disagreements have gotten harsh and angry. After all, if there is no truth greater than our personal truths, then whoever is most forceful wins. You see it in the violence on the streets and in the violent terms we use to describe political disagreement.
Christians have a better way. We have to, because we are commanded to love everyone — whether they be tax collectors or prostitutes, liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats, Trump supporters or Biden supporters — and lead them closer to God.