Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The call of the Lord in this Sunday’s Gospel, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” always has special resonance for me, as it is a call to sincere conversion away from earthly things and the idolatry of worldly concerns to a more perfect following after Christ. This conversion is always needed, and rarely easy. We are all susceptible to worldly idolatry, and especially to the temptation to put our hope in civic, state, or federal leaders rather than in God. This, in fact, is an important consideration in interpreting our Lord’s words. In the Roman Empire, Caesar was not only a ruler, but was also revered as a god. Thus, governing authority and divine authority were, for the Roman Empire, considered virtually as one. The Jewish people, on the other hand, knew and understood that God was the head of their nation and people. They remembered well the warning given when Saul was anointed king and the danger of putting their trust in earthly princes. For Israel, the king was God’s servant, first and foremost, and only insofar as he served God did he merit his crown. While the king was to be honored, the king could never take the place of God in the heart of a faithful Israelite. In an election year and at the height of the campaign season, this seems to be an even more timely Gospel passage on which to meditate.
For ancient Israel, God’s primacy was never in doubt, even when Israel had been overrun by a foreign power. With the ascendancy of Rome, Israel falls under the influence of a pagan, Gentile power. And so it is that we come to the question posed to our Lord: is it lawful to pay taxes which are given in to the Emperor who views himself as a god? Isn’t that idolatry? With the famous “render unto Caesar,” Jesus expresses a pithy approach to public life and citizenship to be adopted by His followers. In the second century, a letter to Diognetus, a non-Christian cultural leader, expressed the application of “render unto Caesar” and the Christian approach to public life. It reads in part:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.
Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen.”
Jesus does not separate citizenship from discipleship. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” reminds us that the two are not the same. Political action and agendas belong in the earthly sphere and are not divine. What is God’s takes priority. In the first reading this Sunday, the Prophet Isaiah speaks to Cyrus, king of Persia, who famously set Israel free from captivity in Babylon. Through the prophet, God reminds Cyrus that whatever power he has, whether he knows it or not, is subject to God’s divine plan and providence. No earthly power can measure up to the divine: “I am the Lord and there is no other.” Yet the king has a role, and to render unto Caesar is part of the Christian’s responsibility in the world. That responsibility, of course, is not equal to the Christian responsibility to be salt and light, to be leaven, to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. A tax paid to Caesar is simply an acknowledgment of earthly authority, not divine. Our Lord shows us that we can be citizens of the world, while at the same time keeping our eyes fixed on our citizenship in Heaven.
Space constraints prevent me from finishing this column this week. For now, we do well to examine our consciences. Is my political party or are my political concerns such that I think about them more than I think about God? Do I talk about (or post about, for the social-media-savvy among us) my politics more than I talk (or post) about my faith in Jesus Christ? Have I embrace policy ideas that I know are in direct contradiction to the moral law, to the Commandments, to the Gospel, to the teaching of the Church? Next week, I will continue this discussion.
To be continued…