In today’s readings Our Lord is encouraging us to reflect a little more deeply on what we owe the world – “Caesar’s” and what we owe God. One doesn’t exclude the other, nor should it, but they are not on the same level.
The prophecy of Isaiah today is addressed to the Israelites in exile after Babylon had conquered Jerusalem and the Temple. As they hear God’s words through the prophet, they remember another prophecy they received, through Jeremiah, a prophecy they didn’t believe. They’d put their faith in the Temple, since it was God’s house, and they didn’t think the Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem, because the Temple and they as a People were founded by God. However, through the prophets God had warned them that they had stopped giving God his due, which led to disaster, exile, and the destruction of the Temple they’d relied on. Cyrus was the new king of Persia, and was defeating the Babylonians who had taken the Israelites into exile. God told the Israelites that he was using Cyrus, even though Cyrus didn’t realize it, to send them back to Israel and to rebuild the Temple. Cyrus later did exactly that. The Israelites had learned the lesson of the need to give God his due.
In today’s Gospel the Pharisees and Herodians are trying to trap Jesus in something they considered a conflict of interest between what was due to God, and what was due to Caesar. For the Pharisees, paying taxes to Caesar meant saying Caesar was a greater ruler over Israel than God, therefore greater than God. The Herodians didn’t see that as a problem, because they didn’t see paying the census tax as acknowledging anything divine about Caesar. They saw no way out of the situation, so they could trap Jesus in whatever position he took. If he sided with the Pharisees (no tax), he was against the Romans. If he sided with the Herodians (pay the tax), he was a traitor to Israel.
So Christ asks to see the coin, and tells them to clue in that God and Caesar are not on the same level. They were putting Caesar on the same level as God just because Caesar minted a coin saying so. Caesar minted his coins and set up his taxes and temples. By putting his image on the coin, he was saying, “Look what I’ve accomplished and what you owe me.” God permitted him to accumulate all this, because he knew that however Caesar used his gifts, God could use that ultimately for good. If Caesar wanted his coins and recognition, he could have them.
Caesar may have minted coins and set up taxes and temples, but God minted Caesar, and minted us: just like those coins that bore Caesar’s image, we bear the image of God, and we owe him everything because he has literally given us everything. God didn’t just construct a civilization or a set of tax laws: he created everything seen and unseen, as we pray each Sunday in the Creed. Caesar needed armies and miners and minters to produce his coins and make them worth something; God created everything out of nothing, and unlike Caesar, God expects nothing in return for all he has given us.
Let’s reject efforts to mint the truth. God doesn’t play politics: he is the lord of life and history. To consider him a political player is simply beneath him. The Pharisees and Herodians were trying to trap him into expressing a political opinion on paying a census tax to Caesar, which some saw as sacrilegious and others saw as their civic duty. To be fair, in Our Lord’s time on earth the lines between civic and religious duty were blurred. By giving to Caesar what is his and to God what is God’s, Jesus is reminding us that each of those two things are important on their own level, but they are not on the same level.
The real danger comes when civil authority tries to go beyond minting coins and thinks it can mint the truth. Declaring the state as all-knowing, just as imposing one expression of religion as the definitive one, ignoring the freedom to believe as you choose, is an attempt to mint the truth, and it is trying to give to Caesar what is really God’s. God is the source of all truth, and he has woven the truth into his creation so that all men of good will can find it and follow it.
Sadly there are still many attempts today to mint the truth: religious fundamentalism imposed by force, attempts to redefine basic natural institutions, such as marriage, etc. Let’s ask for the wisdom and the courage to always see what is due to God, what is due to Caesar, and to fulfill our true obligations to both.
Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4–6; Psalm 96:1, 3–5, 7–10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1–5b; Matthew 22:15–21.