GIVE TO CAESAR AND TO GOD
Is 45:1, 4-6; 1Thess 1:1-5b; Matt 22:15-21
This Sunday Jesus tells us, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This statement has seems to be a ready excuse for many people, who want to sell their consciences, and opt for something which they know is evil and is most likely to be criticized by on-lookers. It is a quotation that one hears in everyday life, from the mouths of Christians and non-Christians alike. For instance:
- A Christian just coming out from Church (after a Sunday Service) and goes straight to consult a soothsayer will use this quotation “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God…” In Church, he/she has just finished giving God His due. Outside Church, he/she has a duty also to serve other ‘gods’, other ‘Caesars’.
- A person wants to justify his/her participation in a political system that is unjust, that clearly exploits and oppresses the citizens of a nation, a system that has no respect for human rights … here, this quotation comes in handy. (Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God).
- A job-seeker battling with his/her conscience as to whether to pay a million francs in order to get admitted into ENAM, or CUSS, or the Higher ENS simply drags in this quotation to support his/her reason for promoting corruption in such high offices in a country. (Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God)
This is a total misuse of this quotation. Yet not one of such persons doubts that such practices are evil.
- AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE
The Pharisees and the Herodians met together for the express purpose of trying to find a way to frame Jesus for a crime that would land Him in jail. It worth noting that these are two enemy groups who are uniting in the face of a “common enemy”–Jesus. The Pharisees do not go to Jesus themselves. Instead they sent their disciples, uniting forces with the supporters of Herod (the King), also known as the “Herodians”. They came up with a brilliant plan which they considered as win/win. No matter what Jesus answered (they thought), he would end up in trouble. If he said that one SHOULD pay, the taxes people would feel that he supported Roman occupation, and was a traitor to Israel. If he said that one should NOT pay taxes, he would be guilty of sedition (encouraging people to rebel against the government). In the first case, the people would turn against Jesus; in the second, Rome would turn against Jesus. Win/Win!
- REPAYING CAESAR
In response, Jesus asked for a denarius. He asked them whose image was on the coin. They answered: the image of Caesar was on the coin. Jesus said: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.””. An interesting shift in Jesus’ answer points us in the direction of the import of the saying. The question was whether one should GIVE (Greek didômi) tribute to Caesar. But Jesus’ answer speaks of GIVING BACK, paying back (paradidômi), as if one already owed something. What Jesus says could be paraphrased as: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s due, and to God what is God’s due.” Instead of answering the direct question of whether one should pay the forced tribute to Caesar or not, Jesus raises the question to another level, that of the principle of justice. Greek philosophers before Jesus defined justice as “giving back to everyone what is their due.” Jesus seems to be saying that the only binding obligation is that of justice, that of giving to every person what is due to them. Serving God is basically a matter of justice? If God has given us all that we are and have, then we are bound, in justice, to give back to God some gratitude, loyalty, and service. The central act of Christian worship is called Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.” It is basically a question of paying back the debt of gratitude we owe to God.
- THE CHRISTIAN AND THE STATE
The Bible says we were made in the image of God. Just as the image on the coin represented the authority of Rome, so the image of God on our lives reveals our obligation to God. Although God has established the authorities in this world, they do not supersede him. We are to give ourselves to him. This will at times bring us to a point of decision where we must decide whether to obey God or men.
In Acts 5:30-32, while, “We must obey God rather than any human authority”, Jesus also calls us to be good citizens. In Romans 13:1-7, Paul tells us that the government has been given authority by God to keep order in the world. As citizens of a nation, we expect a great many services from the government. The only money the government has for such services is money gotten from the citizens. They pay/contribute this money through taxes. The problem comes in when the government does not utilize the tax money for the common good. For this reason, Jesus is recommending not absolute but qualified loyalty to the government of a state. That is to say, if a government provides needed goods and services then citizens must, in justice, give back to the government their loyalty and support. But where a government is a dictatorship that imposes itself on the people’s will, and provides no services, the principle of justice does not demand that people give their loyalty and support. To use this passage as a justification of unconditional loyalty and support of corrupt and totalitarian governments is a misunderstanding of what Jesus is teaching. Christians must together discern whether and to what extent a given government and its policies merit their loyalty and support. But total and absolute loyalty and service is a debt that is owed to God and to God alone.
- ON DUAL CITIZENSHIP
Every Christian, as it were, has dual citizenship: in the kingdom of the world and God’s kingdom. However, although God has established the authorities in this world, they do not supersede him. To God belongs our most precious loyalty and obedience. If a conflict occurs in this area or when Caesar’s laws are in conflict with God’s laws, then Caesar’s laws must be changed. We must choose God over Caesar. Catechism of the Catholic Church says, (CCC no. 2242): “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,’ (Mt 22:21). ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29): ‘When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel,’” (GS 74 § 5).
This is similar to what happened to St. Thomas More. He was Chancellor of England at the time of King Henry VIII. This king was validly married but appealed to Rome to annul the marriage, so that he could marry another woman. Since there was no honest basis for annulment, Rome refused. Henry VIII took matters in his own hands and he remarried. He, then, ordered his friends and officials to sign a document declaring that they agree that he acted rightly. Many signed but Thomas More refused, with the result that he was executed. Thomas More had two obligations: one to his country and one to God. When these two obligations conflicted, St. Thomas More resolved it by remaining faithful to God. Although Christians have dual citizenships, they should never forget which of these two is more precious. We owe MUCH to Caesar but EVERYTHING to God.
- WE OWE GOD EVERYTHING
- a) We owe him our obedience. We should do what God tells us to do. We do not hold a “VETO” over God’s Laws! He is God and we are not. Therefore, he calls the shots!
- b) We owe him time. If we give God what is his, then we cannot fail to him our time. Sometimes, time is a more precious commodity than money. Lots of people say they want to do ‘this or that thing’ but DO NOT HAVE TIME. Yet, we make time for work, for recreation, for hobbies, for television, for our phones, for sports. When it comes to the things of God, does it mean we do not have time or is it that we want to give our time only to other things? Ordinarily, we make time for the things that we consider important to us. (For example, the husband who says he cannot get out of bed on Sunday, it is his one day to sleep in. Yet, when working for EXTRA PAY shows up, he forgets about the ‘sleep in’). Jesus gave us a simple formula that one can live by: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all the other things will be added to you.” It is the old principle that if you do the big and important things FIRST, you will always have room to squeeze in a bunch of the other stuff. However, if you spend all your time on the little things, there will not be any room left for the big things, not even for God.
- c) We owe him honor. The word honour is a lost word today. Even in wedding vows it is often missing. To honour someone means to treat them with high respect or esteem. We tend to honour those who we feel can benefit us. The problem is: we are not honouring those persons. We are actually USING them! We honour God when we show him respect in the way we talk about him, the way we talk to him, and the way we respond to what he says. We honour God when we do what he says. We honour him with the words we use and the respect we show. We show him honour when we notice his blessings and the work of his hand. We honour him when we remember that all we have and all we are is due to his mercy and grace.
- d) We owe him Ourselves. We can boil all of it down to one sentence: WE OWE GOD OUR LIVES! We are who we are today because of his grace. Consequently, we should be available for his service; we should be eager in our obedience, we should be attentive in our listening. We should be open for his direction.
People like to separate life into the sacred and the secular. In other words, we try to separate our religious life from our everyday life. We are often told that these two realms should forever remain separate. However, Jesus teaches us that our Christian faith is not what we do on Sunday, it is not what we believe about eternity. For the believer, following Christ is who we are, not what we do.
We all need to ask ourselves: How are you doing with the priorities of your life? Are you putting first things first? Are you balanced?
- If you want to know what your current priorities are look at your calendar and your checkbook.
- What will you always make time to do?
- What one thing will always get you out of bed in the morning?
- If you put these things together you will see where your true “first priorities” reside.
Jesus calls us to put him above everything else. He calls us to serve Him by the way we conduct the rest of our lives. We are to be good citizens of our countries while at the same time being consistent and faithful citizens of the Kingdom of God. It is not always easy to find that balance but we should be pursuing it with all the energy we can muster.