In order to bring the saying alive in this way, we need to read it in the context of a story, which is how it is presented to us, not as an abstract timeless truth but as a response to a situation. The question for us then is, when did we experience a similar situation? And then, who was the Jesus who spoke as he did?
We must be careful to interpret the saying correctly. In the course of the Church’s history, it has often been taken to mean that there are areas of life which are Caesar’s domain and other areas which are God’s.
In fact the saying has been used to justify the claim that religious leaders should not “interfere” in secular fields like politics, economics or culture.
This could not possibly be the meaning, however. The entire teaching of Jesus, indeed the entire bible, insists that the whole of creation “belongs to God” – “his is the earth and the fullness thereof”. There is no question of “separate domains” therefore, since everything belongs to God.
The saying is rather about keeping priorities right. The Pharisees voice a concern which seems at first sight to be harmless but is in fact a “trap”. They are not neutral. For them, paying taxes to Caesar is important, whereas for Jesus (as for all people whose priorities are right) it is only of relative importance: he says in effect, “you can give back to Caesar whatever belongs to him (whatever has his head engraved on it); just make sure you don’t give him what belongs to God”.
“What belongs to God” must be taken in a wide sense to mean what is so precious that we cannot make concessions where it is concerned – family, friendship, the sanctity of sex, self respect, compassion,humility, care for the poor, etc.
Jesus then is challenging the Pharisees to get their priorities right.
– His position can be expressed positively: treasure what is primary for you, and you will find that you will have no problem looking after (“paying your taxes” to) what is secondary.
– It can also be expressed negatively: don’t take secondary things so seriously (“pay taxes to them”) that you end up compromising what is primary.
We enter into the drama of “whose head is this?” Feel Jesus’ inner freedom (a hint of disdain) when he says, “well then, give it back to him”. On the other hand feel the terrible sadness of a priority gone wrong
– allowing something that is sacred (“belongs to God”), to have “Caesar’s head” engraved on it.
The passage is intended to evoke memories of people or communities getting priorities wrong:
– parents who provide material benefits for their children but neglect to give them quality time.
– teachers who stress success in examinations and forget to praise those who are not successful but do their best.
– Church leaders who are more concerned with what people think than with being faithful to the message of Jesus.
– public officials who work for popularity and compromise their integrity.
Jesus is the person (or community) pointing out that priorities have gone wrong. As with all insightful statements, his answer is simple but surprising (“it took them by surprise”) and deeply satisfying (“they left him alone and went away”).
A sign that we have made a good meditation is that we identify with the Pharisees. If we find ourselves looking down on them, it means that we haven’t really entered into the story. They represent us (sometimes an inner voice within us) when we voice concerns which are important but which are really “a trap” in which more important values are lost. This situation occurs in:
– our personal lives, e.g. concerns with health, job security, standing in the community;
– the life of the Church, e.g. concerns for large numbers, prestige, structures;
– the development of a social movement, e.g. concern with taking political power, finances.
The details of how the Pharisees “went about” asking their question are all significant and can help us recognise them from our experience.
– They “set traps”: their concern hampers true growth.
– They “work it out”: their arguments are very subtle; note in particular the unctuous language; we are never more “pious” than when we are rationalizing our fears and prejudices.
– They do it “between them”: what they say represents the thinking of many, an entire class or even a culture.
The Pharisees’ flattery in verse 16 is part of their “trap”, but we can take their words at face value. They were right to say that Jesus was “an honest man” who “taught the way of God in an honest way,” that he was “not afraid of any one” and that people’s rank “meant nothing to him”. We celebrate people (or communities) like that; we read these words as a call to repentance.
“See the Divine self in all and all in the Divine self.” …The Upanishads
Lord, there was a time when we had become overly concerned for what was relatively unimportant:
– what people thought about us,
– being financially secure,
– not making mistakes,
– being hurt.
We recognise now that this concern was undermining our priorities,
like the Pharisees working out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said.
We thank you that you sent us Jesus,
– close friends,
– members of our community,
– some of our children,
– national leaders.
They made us aware of the malice in this concern,
told us that we were quite right to give to Caesar what belonged to him
but that we had allowed ourselves to give to Caesar what belonged to you alone.
We thank you, Lord, for the insight, so simple and yet so surprising.
What had seemed an insoluble problem was now solved,
we left it alone and went our way. Thank you, Lord.
“We ought not to consider our chance of living or dying, we ought only to consider whether we are doing right or wrong.” …Socrates
Lord, from time to time you come into our lives
calling us to re-establish right priorities:
– through a bible passage or a homily;
– through some friend or a member of our family pointing out our faults;
– when one of our dream projects collapses in failure.
Forgive us that we refuse to hear what you are saying.
We know that if we did we would have to change our ways.
So like the Pharisees working out how to trap Jesus in what he said,
we think up all kinds of arguments:
– following this way will harm our health or hurt those dear to us;
– it is against common sense and no one else is doing it;
– it will offend powerful people and cause confusion in the community.
At such times we become very pious,
we say how much we long to be true and how open we are,
but really we are marshaling a thousand reasons for staying as we are.
Lord, have mercy on us Pharisees.
Lord, our culture lays too much stress on things that are important but secondary,
like wealth, prestige and popularity.
We are like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus
worrying about whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar,
and so we end up setting traps for the idealists you have sent us
and are totally surprised at their answers.
Lord, we pray that we, the members of your Church, may be wise like Jesus
with the wisdom that comes from being honest,
from not being afraid of anyone because people’s rank means nothing to us,
and from giving you what belongs to you.
Once rooted in his wisdom we can escape from the traps
that are set for us by the false values of our time;
we will recognise the things that have Caesar’s image on them
and have no problem giving them back to him.
On the other hand we will recognise the things that bear your image alone.
Introduction to the Celebration
The Holy Spirit has gathered us here to offer thanks and praise to the Father through our union with Jesus. But in discovering our relationship with God, we also discover our relationship with other human beings, and our place within God’s creation. So we are called to love and serve God and we are called to love and serve others. We often think that it is enough to serve either God or humanity: serve one and ignore the other. But life just isn’t that simple: we have to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give back to God what belongs to God. Part of our mission as Christians is to negotiate and balance these responsibilities. It is this mission we are going to reflect on today.
1. The phrase ‘rendering to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God’ is one of the bits of scripture that people often use without recognising its origin. But it is a phrase that we can do well to keep with us.
2. We all know we have a variety of duties and responsibilities:
To those immediatly around us who love us and whom we love: care, respect, and tenderness are not optionalin our relationships.
• We have responsibilities to those we work with and to those who employ us – honesty and integrity are supposed to be hallmarks of Christians;’
• We have responsibilities to the larger society ; we.are called to be responsible citizens.
• We have responsibilitIes toward the whole of humanity in that we must work for peace and developinerit – this is something’ .. that we are conscious of today but which it would hardly having been worth mentioning a century ago;
• We have responsibilities toward the environment and the care of the planet, indeed because we believe we are all creatures and that God has made us stewards of creation we have an interest in this that is far more demanding than that of an environmentalist who would not recognise the divine origin of the creation – again this is not something that would have been given prominence even a few decades ago and some who call themselves Christians still think environmental concerns are not really ‘religious’ issues despite saying each week’ we believe in one God … maker of all that is, seen and unseen’.
• And we are called in the Spirit to follow the Christ, to become part of his body the church, and offer praise and thanks to our heavenly Father – prayer and praise and an awareness of the mystery that surrounds us is part of our humanity.
3. If we had a little score card of all those duties with this question before each of them: ‘Do you think this is part of the duties of a member of the People of God?’, then virtually every one of us would tick the ‘yes’ box for each question.
4. However, just as at the time of Jesus, we try to play one off against the other.
5. Some Christians try to argue that it can be an ‘either … or’ situation. Some people who are opposed to religion argue that religious people are only concerned with ‘spiritual’ things. Others opposed to religion argue that they should be only concerned with ‘spiritual’ things. Many, for various reasons, argue that ‘religion has no place’ in this or that sphere of human living. Thus they imply that we should not consider ourselves as having any responsibilities in this or that concern.
6. In the face of this we must remember that God is the Lord of all creation. In his love God has given the creation a freedom and integrity, and given humanity responsibilities within it. We are called to live lives of prudence, always keeping in mind the variety of our duties to self, others, the world, and God. It is in taking care of this variety of responsibilities that we fulfill the command to render Caesar’s thing;s to Chesar, and God’s things to God.
It is always heartening when a bully comes off the worse for wear in a confrontation. And it is all the better if there is a comical element in the situation.
Some people might perceive a humorous element in the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees when they were trying to entrap him by asking him if it was lawful to give tribute to the Roman Emperor Caesar. Matthew informs us that the Pharisees were up to no good. They were discussing among themselves how they could ensnare Jesus when he was teaching the multitudes (see Mt 22:15).
They knew that if Jesus said anything that could be interpreted as criticising Caesar, they would be able to accuse him of treason, although they hated the Roman occupiers and the Emperor themselves. They were blatantly duplicitous and were shameless in their plotting and planning to outwit Jesus.
Cunningly, they began by praising Jesus, telling him that he was a truthful preacher and that he taught God’s will. Therefore, they said mischievously, they would welcome his thoughts about the issue of paying tribute to Caesar.
But Matthew revealed that Jesus knew their wickedness and, instead of answering directly, he asked them for a coin. Then Jesus asked them to look at the coin and explain whose image was on the coin, whose inscription. He was forcing them to confront the truth. When they replied ‘Caesar’s’, Jesus told them, famously, that the answer to their question was to ‘give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar — and to God what belongs to God’ (Mt 22:21).
There are several lessons that we can learn from this episode. The first, perhaps the most obvious, is that it is not only legitimate for a Christian to obey the just laws of the state and to pay taxes but we have a duty to do so. We have this example from Jesus who was born into a nation that was subject to an oppressive invading regime. Here he said nothing about a change of regime. Yet he advocated being subject to the law and paying due taxes.
Another lesson from this encounter between Jesus and the scheming Pharisees is that we need to use our imaginations to take the truth to those outside the Church. Notice that Jesus did not dialogue with the Pharisees in an effort to reach some kind of consensus on the matter of whether or not the Jews should pay tribute to Caesar. He simply confronted them with the facts in an imaginative way. They were unable to refute that he was speaking the truth.
So it will be with us if we make a point of faithfully rendering the Church’s teaching to those around us, whenever the opportunity arises. Indeed, we pray for the zeal to seek opportunities to bring others into the Church where the fullness of God’s revelation and grace is to be found.
We know that we have a duty to render to Caesar, that is, our civic and political responsibilities. But we cannot forget that there is also a need to give time and energy to worshipping God in prayer and charitable works. That is how we give to God what belongs to God.
You hypocrites! Why do you set out to trap me? (Mt 22:18)
Donal Neary SJ
A place for everything!
My mother used always say – put things where they belong. Newspapers, food, the bicycle not in the hall, and other homely advice. Jesus says the same here – give what belongs to where it belongs and to whom.
So Jesus is being asked about taxes and politics. He knows he is being trapped about money. He moves on to higher questions. Something about the answer of Jesus asks us — where do we belong?
Belonging can sound heavy – as if we are being controlled, or our money belongs to us and we can do what we like with it But for Jesus it’s the belonging of love, not of power and control.
Much is not in our control. We are born and die at God’s time. This reminds us that we are not the masters of our lives, we come from God and go to God. This belonging is the centre of our human family and community. God doesn’t want to control us but to love us.
But there’s an addition: belonging to God means belonging to each other. We have rights and duties of love. To give to others what belongs to others; give to the poor what belongs to the poor. Everyone has a right to the food of the earth and the food of the mind, and shelter for the body. It’s not charity when people are given food, education, a home, freedom of religion, freedom of speech – it is justice. To give to God what belongs to God is to share the goods of the earth!
From The Connections:
Jesus appeals to us to look beyond the simplistic politics and black-and-white legalisms represented by the coin and realize that we are called to embrace the values centered in a faith that sees the hand of God in all things and every human being as part of a single family under the providence of God.
The Pharisees who confront Jesus with Caesar’s coin are trying to trap him into making a choice between one’s country and God. But Jesus’ response indicates that one’s citizenship does not have to be at odds with one’s faith; in fact, when government seeks to provide for the just welfare of its citizens, it becomes a vehicle for establishing the reign of God.
God and Caesar do not have to be at odds, Jesus tells the Pharisees. In God, we realize the dignity of every man, woman and child as sons and daughters of God and our brothers and sisters; in setting up systems of government, we provide for the common good of one another and protect the welfare of all, providing for public safety, educational opportunities and clean water and air.
Jesus’ answers are not the clear, unambiguous solutions we hope for to these and many other questions. But his response is the heart of living our faith: the struggle to return to God what is God’s. Through prayer and discernment, each one of us has to do for ourselves the hard work of deciding exactly what is God’s will in our complex world of politics, money and human relationships.
Jane Knuth has collected stories of her experiences at “St. Vinnie’s” in a delightful book Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25c at a Time. Thrift Store Saints includes some two dozen stories about the volunteers and patrons of the St. Vincent’s thrift shop. The Kalamazoo thrift store sells everything from furniture and clothing to basic household items, but also offers financial assistance, referral services — and prayerful and emotional support — to the needy and lost.
Rather than viewing society’s poor as problems to be solved, Jane and her colleagues see them each in a completely different light: as saints who can lead us straight to the heart of Christ. Jane Knuth writes:
“From all appearances, it looks as if we are running a thrift store at St. Vincent de Paul. At our meetings we frequently get into discussions about how to better run the store. Should we raise our prices? Give away less? Not accept so many donations? Lock our dumpster? Move to a better retail location? All these issues would come up with any resale shop. Eventually, it occurs to us that our purpose is not to run the most profitable, shrewd, efficient, riff-raff-free store in town. Our purpose is to help the poor and to change our way of thinking and being. It only looks as though we run a store. The store is just our cover . . .
“I still keep looking for the ‘deserving poor’ – the innocent ones who are blatant victims of injustice and hard luck. I want to help them and no one else. From what I can see, apart from children, most poor people’s situations seem to stem from a mixture of uncontrollable circumstances, luck, and their own decisions. Same as my situation. Do I deserve everything I have? Am I somehow more moral, smarter, or a harder worker than poor people? Sometimes I am, most times I’m not. Do poor people deserve their daily struggle for existence? Are they immoral, stupid, and lazy? Sometimes they are, most times they aren’t.”
God’s image of his human family is realized in the kindness and charity extended by a small thrift store. In today’s Gospel, Jesus articulates the Father’s vision for humanity: a “banquet” at which all are respected and honored for who they are and the goodness they bring to the king’s table, be it the “table” of the classroom, the clinic, the playground, the home. If we are to be truly faithful to God’s vision, the compassion of God must transform our heart’s perspective, enabling us to see beyond ethnic stereotypes, economic distinctions, class and celebrity, to recognize every man, woman and child as made in the same image and likeness of God in which we were all created; we must be willing both to give joyfully what we have and to accept humbly what others bring to the table. God’s “banquet” is only realized when we embrace a radically new vision of humanity, a perspective that ignores suspicions, doubts and stereotypes and, instead, recognizes everyone, first, as a child of God, worthy of respect, love and compassion.
d. No dues to God:
A prosperous farmer was miserly in what he gave to his Church. So, his pastor went to visit him with the hope of getting him to increase his donation. The pastor pointed out to him that the Lord had given him a fertile piece of land and had blessed him with sunshine and rain so that his crops would grow. The priest added, “You know, this farm and everything you have is really on loan to you from God. You should be more grateful.” The farmer replied, “I don’t mean to complain, Father, but you should have seen what a mess this place was when God was running it by Himself!”
e. Journey to God with a parcel of Caesar:
There once was a wealthy man who was determined to take his wealth with him when he died. He prayed and prayed until he convinced the Lord to let him bring his wealth inside the Pearly Gates. There was one condition: He could only bring one suitcase of his wealth with him. Therefore, the rich man filled his suitcase with gold bullion. Then one day, he died. St. Peter greeted him at the gate and told him he could come in, but his suitcase would have to be left behind. “But I have an agreement with God," said the man, "to bring one suitcase into heaven." "That's very unusual," replied St. Peter. "Let me look inside that suitcase." The man opened the suitcase to reveal the shining gold bullion. St. Peter was amazed. He asked, "Why in the world did you bring more paving stones to heaven when we have already finished Heaven’s flooring with pure gold and beautiful diamonds?”
f. Remember the movie, “Oh, God!” with George Burns?
In that movie, the idea was mentioned that the reason God gave Adam and Eve no clothes to wear was because God knew that once they had clothes, they would want pockets. Once they had pockets, they would want money.
g. "Will the Reverend also have a martini?"
A pious pastor who had been a teetotaler all his life, was invited to dinner by a new parishioner. "Would you gentlemen care for a drink?" the waiter asked. "I'll have a Martini," said the parishioner. "Will the Reverend also have a martini?" the waiter asked. "I'd sooner break all Ten Commandments," said the pastor. "I didn't know we had a choice," said the parishioner. In today's Gospel Lesson, the Pharisees ask Jesus a question involving choice.
Finally, the new citizens stood to take their vows. But before they could do so, they first had to renounce their previous citizenship, whatever it was. Then all together, with tears flowing down their cheeks, they declared, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America..." I want to declare to you today that we Christians hold dual citizenship. Simultaneously, we are citizens of America and also citizens of the Kingdom of God.
11) The Christian and Politics:
12) Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s:
13) “I love my country but there is a higher authority, God!”
14) Is Pat Murray on board?’
The little boy was straightforward and honest in his questions because he wanted to entrust to the lady something valuable. The Pharisees are not being honest. They have no intent in entrusting Jesus with anything. They are not looking for the answer to a question. They don't want someone to hold their quarter. They are looking for a way to get rid of this trouble making Nazarene named Jesus.
The Pharisees were so angry it blinded them. Think for a moment about the ironies here: We know, because we live on this side of the resurrection, that Jesus was God. They thought he was demonic, an agent of Satan. We know that Jesus is the King of kings. They thought he wanted to be the King of Israel. We know that he was the Son of God. They thought he was simply Joseph and Mary's son. We know that Jesus has influenced the world for 2000 years. They thought his influence would end at the cross.
It's a fascinating story. We look at the Pharisees and we shake our heads...
It is unthinkable that a Christian would not vote! It is unthinkable that Christians would not run for public office! It is unthinkable that Christians would withdraw from the responsibility of taking part in public life. The Christian has a responsibility to Caesar for all the privileges which the rule of Caesar brings. We are citizens of this world and must be good ones, if we are Christ's disciples.
I have also heard it argued that "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" implies a strict separation of church and state, that Jesus is dividing life into two separate and distinct parts - a spiritual part and a secular, or worldly, part. Dedicated and committed Christians have been arguing for this separation for centuries, and we probably won't settle the issue once and for all today. Their argument has been that with these words Jesus is telling us to obey God in the spiritual realm and to obey the government in everything else. Now, that's a nice, neat little division, and it solves many difficult problems. Politics is politics and religion is religion and never the twain shall meet. Let the church take care of its own business and keep their noses out of social and political issues. That would be fine if it worked. You and I both know that it doesn't. Yes, there are obligations we have to the governing authorities, such as paying taxes, exercising our right to vote, and obeying civil laws. But as followers of Jesus Christ, our ultimate obligation is to "seek first the kingdom of God," and all other obligations have to have a lower priority. There can only be one top priority.
Our many loyalties and commitments can do the same to us. We may feel that the strings of power and persuasion tied to us need only be tugged a bit, and then we have to move as they direct. The company we work for, the government we live under, the family we belong to, the possessions we own (more so, the one's we're still paying for) - all these things exercise varying degrees of control over our lives. To a large extent they determine how we spend our time, our money, our energy, our being. It isn't rare at all these days for people to be pulled in so many different directions that they jump and jerk across the stage of life, often feeling helplessly out of control.
Our problem is that there are too many Caesars before which we stand accountable. It's impossible to please them all. Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's is more than some folk feel they can handle.
D. Wayne Burkette, Life in Heaven's Kingdom, CSS Publishing Company
We have good news that is essential to every human being; it's a matter of their eternal life or death. We may be the only conduits God has to certain persons. We must help him reach them.
"That's crazy," said his friend.
"Yes, it's true," came the reply. "It depends on what is really important to you. Here, let me show you."
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and discreetly dropped them on the sidewalk. And then, with the noise of the crowded street still blaring in their ears, they noticed every head within twenty feet turn and look to see if the money that tinkled on the pavement was theirs.
Do you eat cereal for breakfast, or don't you like football?
Are you Lutheran, or do you live in America?
Will you obey God, or will you pay taxes to Caesar?
Welcome to the world of false dichotomies-thing that are wrongly set against each other, "either/or"s that really aren't. Can you wear shoes and come to church in a car? Can you eat cereal and enjoy football? Can you be Lutheran and live in America?...