Please register to access this FREE content.
Jesus short-circuits a clever trap by the Pharisees in the Gospel for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. They want him to declare himself pro-tax and thereby get in trouble with the Jewish people, or declare himself an enemy of Rome by opposing its tax.
Their ultimate goal, though, is to get Jesus killed. Sidestepping their trap, he utters the famous phrase that has reshaped religion and government for two millennia: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”
Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The Pharisees attempt to betray him with a question.
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man,” the Pharisees say to flatter him. Then they lay it on thicker: “You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth,” they say, “And you are not concerned with anyone’s position, for you do not regard a person’s status.”
They are attempting to use an old con-man trick, puffing up a mark’s ego to leave him eager to live up to the con-artist’s high opinion of him. Ironically, the words they mean as empty flattery are actually true. Jesus Christ is indeed a truthful man — Truth himself — and he does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, without being concerned with anyone’s position or status. This is so true, in fact, that he is immune to their flattery.
They are also raising a question that they are personally unable to answer. They ask him “What is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
With that, the Pharisees hoped to draw Jesus into the same trap they are stuck in. They know that Jesus will fall afoul of one power or another, however he answers. If he advocates paying taxes to the hostile occupying force, he will look bad to the downtrodden Jewish people. If he advocates withholding the tax, he will be in trouble with the Romans.
And that’s where their real intentions are revealed: They don’t just want to make Jesus look bad. They want him dead. This story comes after his final entry into Jerusalem, days before his death on the cross. His Jewish opponents have wanted him dead for a long time now — especially after he raised Lazarus.
If the Romans kill him for opposing their tax, all the better. But if the Jewish leaders will have to be more complicit in his death, they at least want him to be unpopular. If they can paint him as a pro-Roman traitor to his people, a promoter of the Roman tax, he would lose the crowd’s adulation. They probably even thought about how they could spin the narrative: Everyone knew how much this man loved eating with tax collectors. Now we know why: Because he loves the Roman tax!
But Jesus won’t fall for their flattery, and he’s not afraid to die.
Jesus’s famously effective way out of their trap is to ask to see the coin they pay the tax with. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” he asks. “Caesar’s,” they reply.
Then Jesus says the immortal words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” or, in the translation we read at Mass, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
This does several things at once:
First, he demonstrates that the Jewish leaders that they are already unmistakably “owned” by Caesar. The coinage they have is Rome’s, not their own.
Second, he introduces the Christian distinction that Pope Benedict XVI wrote about: “Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, in other words, the distinction between Church and State.”
Third, his words point to how Jesus will “render” himself to God. The Pharisees knew very well that, like a coin stamped with the image of the earthly ruler, a man is stamped with the image of the ruler of space and time. They knew what Genesis said: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” St. Paul, a Pharisee after all, later described how this applies very specially to Jesus himself, the Son who is “the image of the invisible God.”
So, when Jesus speaks with the Pharisees early in Holy Week, he says to give back to Caesar the coin stamped with Caesar’s image. Then, when he speaks with the Romans late in Holy Week, he will give back to the Father the body stamped with the image of God.
So, yes, it’s important to “Render unto Caesar” what is his. But it’s more important to render to God what is God’s.
We get this wrong too often.
Caesar often tries to prevent us from rendering to God what is God’s, and, in those cases, “Citizens are obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order.”
When Caesar asks too much, the Catholic duty is to follow Jesus and render to God what is his: Up to and including death. Take a few issues for example:
First, the definition of marriage. When the government wants us to adopt a new definition of marriage, we can remember that St. John the Baptist and St. Thomas More both refused to render marriage’s definition to Caesar. Marriage is God’s, and they put their necks on the chopping block rather than assent to losing the purity of what marriage means.
Second, secularizing our institutions. When the government wants us to compromise the Catholic identity of our institutions, we can remember Dachau in 1942 or Barcelona in the 1930s. St. Titus Brandsma in the German consecration camp died rather than allow his newspaper in the Netherlands to be used to spread the government’s lies about the human person, and the Marist martyrs died rather than cease educating students in the Catholic faith.
Third, abandoning the public square. And when we are asked to cede the public square to enemies of God, we can remember how St. José Sánchez del Rio, Blessed Miguel Pro, and the Mexican martyrs refused to stop expressing their Catholic faith in public processions and public speech.
Jesus this Sunday wants us to ask: Would we each die for marriage in our day? Are we each more willing to give our lives than to secularize our Catholic institutions? Have we each decided that, no matter what, we will refuse to shut up and go away when the government is sick of us?
Catholics are always and everywhere called to render to God everything that is God’s and that includes, well, everything.
But, let’s calm down for a second, and not wish away the first and most obvious meaning of what Jesus said.
With “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus is not saying we owe Caesar nothing. He is saying we owe Caesar a lot.
St. Paul puts it this way: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
The Catechism puts it this way: “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country.”
So, according to Scripture and the teachings of the Church, government gets its authority from God, and we owe not just taxes but even military service to our government.
The First Reading gives an example of this from the Old Testament. 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.
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.”
God grants a measure of his own authority to our rulers and in the normal course of events, Catholics do indeed have to obey (and pay, and serve, and fight for) our nations.
Even when Jesus “rendered to God what was God’s” at the crucifixion, he told Pilate that God himself had given Pilate authority over him. And if we can cite John the Baptist, Thomas More, and ages of martyrs who gave everything rather than give in to what was wrong, we can also cite those who have submitted to authorities in every age, up to St. John Paul II himself.
When he was a bishop in Poland and then later as Pope, John Paul played a careful game with the Communists in charge. He had to be careful not to provoke them too much or compromise the Church too much, in order to serve his people as much as he possibly could.
Since this Sunday is also the feast of St. John Paul II, we can pray: St. John Paul II, on your feast day, give us the gift of knowing when to submit to authority and when to resist when governments ask too much. Be our model of rendering to Caesar what is rightfully his while never holding back what we owe to God.
Image: Promotional photo,