OPTION 1: A young lady was soaking up the sun’s rays on a Florida beach when a little boy in his swimming trunks, carrying a towel, came up to her and asked her, “Do you believe in God?” She was surprised by the question but she replied, “Why, yes, I do.” Then he asked her: “Do you go to church every Sunday?” Again, her answer was “Yes!” He then asked: “Do you read your Bible and pray everyday?” Again she said, “Yes!” By now her curiosity was very much aroused. The little lad sighed with relief and said, “Will you hold my quarter while I go in swimming?”
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.
(A Protestant pastor was once asked how he divided with God the money he collected during his church services.
“That’s easy! I just throw the money I collected upward. That which goes upward belongs to God. That which goes downward belongs to me.” If we follow the law of gravity, we know that the thing we throw upward will not go upward, it will go down.)
In today’s gospel two groups, the Pharisees and Herodians went up to Jesus to trap Him by asking a religious-state issue. The Pharisees were nationalists and Herodians were sympathizers with Rome. They have put aside their mutual antipathy and joined in an effort to trap Him and arouse the people against Him. Their question was: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not,” (v. 17). The Jews resented their foreign rulers and despised paying taxes to Caesar. They posed a dilemma to test Jesus to see if He was loyal to their understanding of religion. If Jesus answered that it was lawful to pay taxes to pagan ruler, then He would lose credibility with the Jewish populace who would regard Him as a coward and a friend of Caesar. If He said it was not lawful, then the Pharisees would have grounds to report Him to the Roman authorities as a political troublemaker, a destabilizer and have Him arrested.
As He does so often in the Scriptures, our Lord leaves His opponents and attackers stunned by His responses. He masterfully recognizes their bad faith, while teaching the truth that they need to hear. Jesus avoided the trap and taught a very important teaching by saying: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” (v. 21).
What do these popular words of Jesus mean? Do the people in the government use these to justify the principle of the separation of Church and State? Mostly, these words are misinterpreted to mean that the State has the same level with God and that the State has the same power with God. But the truth is nobody and nothing above God even the State is not above Him. Before Jesus ascended into heaven He said to His disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” (Matt 28:18). Therefore even civil authorities are from God. God has the first claim over us before we give our allegiance to anything earthly. We are created in His image and likeness and therefore we belong to Him whole and entire, body and soul.
By saying: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach a principle that is a timely for us today as it was for His contemporaries. He is teaching us two things: our allegiance to the government and but above all our best loyalty and obedience to God. That is why we enjoy dual citizenships. By baptism we owe loyalty to Jesus Christ, for we are citizens of His Kingdom. But we also owe allegiance to the country where we were born or naturalized.
First, we should owe allegiance to our country. As citizens we are obliged to obey Caesar’s laws, unless they are manifestly immoral. Even traffic laws can oblige us seriously because driving speedily kills. So does driving after drinking. As citizens too we are obliged in conscience to pay taxes because our country needs money and money cannot be obtained without taxes. Without these taxes, our government could not render to us the basic services we need as citizens. Therefore, cheating on taxes is cheating one’s neighbor who depends on government services. And in return the government renders basic services to people like: housing, education, food, security, infrastructures, water, health services and thousand services that the government will supply.
But above all, to God belongs our most precious loyalty and obedience. If a conflict occurs in this area or when Caesar’s laws are in conflict with God’s laws then Caesar’s laws must be changed. We must choose God over Caesar. Catechism of the Catholic Church says, (CCC no. 2242): “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,’ (Mt 22:21). ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29):
‘When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel,’” (GS 74 § 5).
Just like what happened to St. Thomas More. King Henry VIII of England was validly married but appealed to Rome to annul the marriage. Since there was no honest basis for annulment, Rome refused. Henry VIII took matters in his own hands and remarried. He then ordered his friends and officials to sign a document declaring that they agree that he acted rightly. Many signed but More refused with the result that he was executed. More have two obligations: one to his country and one to God. When these two obligations conflicted, More resolved it by remaining faithful to God.
We have dual citizenships. But let us never forget which of these two is more precious. We owe much to Caesar but everything to God.
See Today’s Readings: Cycle A