Twenty-Ninth Sunday, 2017
“GIVE BACK TO CAESAR WHAT BELONGS TO CAESAR…”
Readings: 1st- Is. 45:1, 4-6; 2nd- 1Thess. 1:1-5; Gospel- Matt. 22:15-21
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “And if the world is to be remade, it will be done, not by masses being pushed by revolutionary leaders; it will be done by these men who remake their own hearts and souls, as Our Blessed Savior Himself remade a human nature by a resurrection and make that a pattern of all of us. He could leave Caesar on his throne, and Pilate on his judgment seat, and Roman coins in the pockets of people that were already being obsessed by foreign leaders. Then He would take twelve men, and He would completely change the world. So that is the way our world is to be remade”. The Pharisees plan to entrap Jesus with a difficult topic of paying taxes to Caesar in today’s gospel, “You are a truthful man… you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, …you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Christ’s response is, "Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God" (Matt. 22:21).
That is a calculated attempt to put Jesus into trouble by the Pharisees. They adopt a method of flattery. They pretend to love him. In their mind, they work out a strategy to catch him, "Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you" (Matt. 22: 16). The Pharisees know that Christ is an honest man. They know he teaches the way of God. They know the he is not influenced by human ranking.
They are aware of the sensitivity of the issue of paying tax to Caesar. Caesar is like the supreme emperor who controls political and economic powers; he determines the freedom of the Jews at the time. We can recall what happened during the crucifixion when Jesus was brought to Pilate. Their accusation against him was: "We found this man inciting our people to revolt, opposing payment of tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ, a king" (Luke 23:2).
And when Pilate attempted to release Jesus, the Jews threatened him, "If you set him free you are no friend of Caesar's; anyone who makes himself king is defying Caesar” (John 19: 12). That means that tribute to Caesar for them is such a serious responsibility, no compromise. To deny Caesar’s supremacy would be a point of indictment against Christ. The coin brought to Jesus is a symbol of the Roman government represented by Caesar. It is a duty to pay to the Roman government the tribute of their obedience and of their property.
To compare Caesar with God is itself a fallacy. Paying tribute to Caesar is a way of fulfilling their civil responsibility; it is an act of civil obedience and not religion or worship. The prophet Isaiah writes, "I am the Lord, unrivaled; there is no other God beside me. Though you do not know me, I arm you that men may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that, apart from me, all is nothing" (Is. 45: 5-6).
What belongs to Caesar? In simple terms, Caesar has authority over the Roman empire. The Romans, Herodians and Pharisees of the time are Caesar’s subjects. It is like paying taxes here in America. It’s such a serious business. No one messes with IRS. We all pay taxes, including priests: Federal Income tax, State Income tax, County tax. We all pay with the dollars. We all pay taxes for the government to function: for maintenance of schools, roads, hospitals, etc. President Trump is pushing for amendment of the tax laws. He has executive powers as the president to initiate policies that concern paying of taxes, and we have to obey as citizens. Not even the priest can tell you not pay your taxes. But that’s not to compare Trump with God. We cannot even compare him with the Pope because both represent different authorities.
For the Jews, Caesar owns taxes for the administration of the Roman State. Caesar controls the state but God controls Caesar. Caesar belongs to God. Saint Paul says, “Everything there is comes from him and is caused by him and exists for him. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Rom.11: 33-36).
Christ demonstrates the need to recognize human authorities, the need to pay taxes and rates for the government to function. He recognizes constituted powers who direct the governance of states. Christ recognizes civil authorities- presidents, prime ministers, governors, senators, congress men/women, legislators, speakers. He says, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's". But He challenges us more by saying, "Give to God what belongs to God". Christians should pay their taxes. Christians must also support the Church, must uphold the dominion of God through commitment to the Church.
All power belongs to God. It is not "God...or Caesar", not even "God... and Caesar". It is the God of Caesar. Elected officials have to make themselves servants of God. Constituted authorities have to recognize God's supremacy in making policies for the governance of the state. Today's reading thus challenges government to give God his due. It challenges us also to appreciate the State while respecting God. We have a commitment of faith to give to God who is the source of life. Whatever belongs to God must not be compromised. Life is a typical example; it belongs to God. Presidents, prime ministers, governors, and other representative leaders must recognize that God is supreme. He cannot be substituted by any other.
All glory, power, honor and dominion belong to God forever and ever. Amen.