Fr. Kristopher’s Corner…
During my last three years in seminary we had an incredibly intelligent professor, but his tests were horrible. For midterms he would give out what we called “the multiple choice test of death”. He might have 5 possible answers for a given question and any combination of them could be right or wrong. There was no process of elimination. Each question, with a little word misplaced, could be the difference between pass and fail. He was a man of subtlety so he was looking for details. Luckily I passed his classes, but it wasn’t easy.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is also given a very difficult test. He was given a trick question, one that if he answered affirmative or negative, he would be wrong. This question was designed to condemn him no matter what he did. To understand the complexity of the question, we need to look at the background behind the question.
Let’s begin by repeating the question: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? If Jesus answered, “yes, it is lawful,” the Pharisees and scribes would have accused him of supporting the Roman occupation which conquered them and made them subjects. He would have been putting Rome above his home country of Israel and therefore be considered a traitor to his people. But if Jesus said, “No, it is not lawful,” the Sadducees and King Herod, not to mention the Romans, could have accused him of being a rebel who would not support the authorities over them. The Pharisees and priests could have accused him of putting himself above Caesar as a higher authority.
However, rather than falling into their trap and getting cornered into choosing one of their responses, Jesus knew their thoughts and chose a third option, one they didn’t know existed. Instead, he asked for a coin. In handing him a coin, they showed that they already paid the census tax and were already supporting the Roman occupation betraying themselves. But, rather than draw attention to this fact, he asked whose inscription and image was on the coin. They told him it was Caesar’s. So Jesus told them in this famous phrase, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”.
Their trick gave him the chance to give them a new lesson. Rather than be faithful to one or the other, he gave them a both/and answer. He told them to render unto Caesar what belongs to him, which is respect, obedience when lawful, and support while they are to render unto God what belongs to God, which is love, trust, obedience, and all that we have received.
Just like the Pharisees, at times our society can try to trap us, seeking to make us choose between our faith and our allegiance to our country. But as Catholics, we know that it doesn’t have to be an exclusive choice, we can be a good Catholic and a loyal American. By living our faith and also seeking to better our country we can have allegiance to both.
However, there are many Catholics who think that our state and religious beliefs must be totally separate and never mix. This can lead us to an interior conflict, where we are living two separate lives. Our religion must inform how we act in the state and political realm. You may ask, why? Well, as Jesus mentioned, we need to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to the state what the state needs. This is our obedience, support, and loyalty. But we are also to render to God what belongs to him. As we mentioned earlier this includes our love, trust, and obedience in regard to faith and morals, not to mention we offer back to God our lives and all we have received for we, ourselves, bear the image of God. We also will not inhabit this earth forever, at some point we become citizens of heaven and we need to live as heavenly citizens here and now. Our Christian beliefs then must influence how we view and support the state. Rather than make a choice of faith or state, the two can support each other.
What does this look like though? To our political and government leaders we give obedience and support. Whether or not we agree with them, we seek to pray for them and aid them in enacting the common good. If what they are doing is unjust, we offer them possible avenues for justice, aiding them to do good and avoid evil. We also seek to elect good representatives and leaders as well as enact just laws through voting at elections. During this respect life month, we remember especially voting in ways that protect life at all of its stages. And for those directly in charge of enacting laws and legislation, it is their duty to promote justice, the common good and enact laws for the good of those they represent. And last, the best way we can support our country is by living our faith devoutly, integrating our faith into every arena of our life. We must always hold true to our beliefs on life, morality, and justice. What we believe should influence how we live throughout the day.
May God bless your week as you seek to live out this challenging teaching.