Gospel Matthew 22:15-21
“Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus is too smart for these blokes. No matter how hard they try, they can’t seem to pin him down. His teaching, as paradoxical as it might be, is both internally coherent and a potent force that pricks the conscience.
Despite their uncharitable intentions, the Pharisees have hit onto a topic that merits attention, and Jesus’ answer is more than a clever dodge of an otherwise tricky situation. His response touches on the duty of the believer to give what is due to the ruler – perhaps even despite one’s own thoughts on their legitimacy as a ruler.
What then do we owe to temporal government? Jesus’ doctrine here is clear, in stating that the government might have a legitimate claim to raise taxes and make laws, but its authority ceases there. What we owe God is much greater – indeed, the commitment of total worship, the spiritual sacrifice of our lives given over in obedience (cf. Heb 10:5; Ps 40:6-8).
It is important here that the distinction between temporal and spiritual authority is clear, but this does not imply a final separation between faith and life – indeed, ultimately all things belong to God, the creator and Lord of all, in whom all things live, and move and have their being (cf. Acts 17:28; and Col 1:17). The paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching that we should give Caesar only those things that bear his image also emphasises that we should give him nothing of ourselves.
For Christians today, this should provide ample fodder for a thorough examination of conscience. Jesus does not give us black and white rules that govern every situation but has instead offered us principles which we need to apply.
How do we act in the world? Do we give over more of ourselves to earthly affairs than we ought? Do we have a rightful respect of legitimate earthly authority?
Point to Ponder
“However, if the image of Caesar was stamped on Roman coins which for this reason were to be rendered to him, the human heart bears the imprint of the Creator, the one Lord of our life. Genuine secularism does not mean, therefore, leaving the spiritual dimension out of consideration but rather recognizing that it is precisely this that radically guarantees our freedom and autonomy from earthly realities, thanks to the dictates of creative Wisdom which the human conscience is capable of accepting and actuating.”
― Pope Benedict XVI. “Render unto Caesar.” from Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons, and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China (May 27, 2007)