Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
October 19, 2014
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Matthew 22:21
Caesar’s name appears only three times in the Gospels. One of these we hear in today’s Gospel. It is a name that, even today, evokes images of power and control, two things with which the modern world is also enamored.
In Jesus’ day the Romans occupied Palestine. Some Jews viewed the Romans as a power to cultivate. These Jews compromised their independence and accepted the Romans. They were called Herodians. On the other hand, the Pharisees, who were Jewish leaders, hated the Romans and considered the Herodians to be collaborators or worse. This tension comes to the surface in our Gospel passage, because both the Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus to ask, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17). It is a truly volatile question.
The tax would have been paid with a Roman coin called the denarius. The coin itself would have offended the Jews in many ways. It had an image of Tiberius Caesar on it, and its inscription proclaimed him to be a god. Jesus answers that they must look at the coin, even though it might be repugnant to them. As it is today, coins belong to the government that issues them. In Roman times the portrait of Caesar was stamped on the coin to show that it belonged to him. You were using it by his good favor. So Jesus asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” (Matthew 22:20). The answer is obvious. “Caesar’s.” So Jesus concludes the obvious. Then, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21).
Jesus is not arguing here for the separation of church and state. That is a silly proposition. He is instead shaming a deceitful questioner into embarrassed silence. How does He do it? By reasserting God’s dominion over all and implying that He is the Lord of History. Caesar is no threat to God or to Jesus because history does not belong to Caesar. And for the Christian, history is never just a listing of facts and dates. For the Christian history begins and ends with God’s purpose, His Divine Will manifesting itself in the events that unfold.
Many today have embraced the logic of the Pharisees and Herodians. That logic is an “either/or” proposition for the Pharisees. It is either Caesar or God. Or it is a “both/and” proposition, Caesar and God, as with the Herodians. Yet, Jesus does not follow that logic. God does not belong to a political party. He stands above this. For the Pharisees the only hope was to overthrow the Romans. Jesus made no sense to them because his kingdom was not of this world. He was not sent to bring about a political revolution. The Herodians couldn’t accept Jesus either, because they wanted compromise with the Romans. They wanted to hear Jesus say, “Pay the tax.” This He would not and could not say. The truth of Jesus stands above these earthly concerns and political disputes and worldly solutions—that logic of “either/or” and “both/and.”
The follower of Christ must realize that the Lord is “the supreme arbiter of historical events” (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 5/11/05). The state is not a god. Our faith is not in political institutions. Instead the Christian is called to contribute to the common good and to support those political institutions, to support that common good. The Christian must be a good citizen, a patriot, and a responsible contributor to society. But he or she is so because faith informs the believer. The believer acts on what he or she believes. The Christian is neither an anarchist nor a compromiser. The Christian adheres to the truth, because ultimately truth does not admit falsehood, lies, deception, and a compromise of principles. When truth ceases to be important in public discourse, then only power is left to fill the vacuum. This the Christian should understand first and foremost.
We live in a dangerous world where Pharisees and Herodians still try to create a world without God. Power and compromise mean more to them than truth and goodness. Man has become the center of their universe. One of our great Catholic theologians once wrote that Man can create a society without God, but a society without God only becomes less than human (Henri de Lubac).
What Jesus says is this. If a Roman coin bearing Caesar’s image must be returned to him, then we must return to God because we bear in our hearts the image of the Creator. While Caesar may be owed his coin, everything belongs to God.
Bishop Glen John Provost