Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God; easy formula, isn’t it? Yet, in practice it may prove to be more complex than it sounds. Let’s see what that may mean for us.
Bible Readings Isaiah 45: 1, 4-6 Psalm 96: 1, 3-5, 7-10 I Thessalonians 1: 1-5 Matthew 22: 15-21
Is there a better way of resolving a conflict between what’s religious and what’s secular than by simply evoking the magical formula: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God? But I see a danger of falling easily into a life of double standard. On the platform of public service I act like everyone else with no reference whatsoever to the values connected to my faith. Then, comes Sunday, I’m the first to occupy the front bench in church, piously slipping rosary beads between my fingers. Not only would that be a total misunderstanding of the saying but it would also be taking it completely out of its context.
The formula in its context
Too lazy for the entire phrase, we just say give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…. the other part we leave for the auditor to complete. The mistake that we risk making about this saying is to think that Jesus is putting Caesar and God on the balance. Certainly, Jesus would be the last person to fall into such confusion. Despite the influence of power that Caesar may have exercised, Jesus knew it well, he just couldn’t be in competition with God. Caesar’s power is subordinate to that of God. It means then that the saying is alluding not only to the separation between what’s profane and what’s religious but it’s also an invitation to clarify our set of priorities. Perhaps, it can help us to see things clearer if we consider the context of the saying.
The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians put Jesus to the test with a question: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus places puzzle pieces in place
If he says yes, he will appear to contradict himself: for does he not speak against the authority who load it over the little ones? Think of the poor people who shoulder the weight of taxes to the Roman, colonial rule. Should he say no, they will denounce him to the authorities as inciting civil disobedience, thus, likely to destabilise peace. In fact, the Zealots are on the alert for any occasion to stage a rebellion. It’s in such an impasse where Jesus is dragged to declare his position. For him, however, it’s not the question of putting two sides in oppositon by yes or no; rather and more importantly, it’s about clarifying for oneself the priority. It’s only after that can I know what to allot to each the place that’s due to them.
Caesar vs God in my life
Today, we witness the laws that are put in place not because they coincide with our values but as a result of pressure from the mob. That’s democracy; it’s about numbers and not necessarily about the pursuit of truth. And lawmakers who live on votes, that is, on the will of masses, are constrained to succumb to the pressure. This is a field in which Christians are called to live out their faith, that is, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. However, it’s not just about public conflict; it can also be internal and personal.
As human beings and as Christians there are values on which we would like to found our lives. It’s helpful to know where I stand, that is, what are the values that give meaning to my life. It’s in the light of those values that I can possibly apply the saying. Indeed, doesn’t Jesus warn us? No one can serve two masters. It’s all about choosing and setting my priorities right.
It’s over to you
Traps are still there, not for Jesus, not from Pharisees and neither are they about taxes. There are times when you find within you conflicting interests. What should you do? Probably you want a response from Jesus, but he gives none. Jesus does not decide for you rather he leaves you at liberty to discern and to decide in the light of what’s important for you.
Nevertheless, you can just check it out, how are Caesar and God faring in your life?
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