by Rev. Stanley J. Krempa
Reprinted with the permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" Knowing their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax." Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?" They replied, "Caesar's" At that he said to them, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.
The question presented to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar was not an invite to a leisurely discussion on a summer afternoon. Instead, the issue of taxation was a very fierce and divisive issue. The fact that present were rival groups such as the Pharisees, who opposed the payment of taxes to the occupying power of Rome, and the Herodians, who supported Roman taxation, shows that this was a question designed by both sides to ambush Jesus. The Lord’s answer is simple to state but complex to delineate. We certainly have obligations to Caesar. If we use Caesar’s roads; if we use Caesar’s police and fire protection; if we use Caesar’s military to keep us safe from foreign enemies; if we use Caesar’s food and health inspections to give us some measure of safety when we go to a restaurant; if we use Caesar’s court system to resolve disputes; if we use Caesar’s school system; if we use Caesar’s zoning laws; if we use Caesar’s trash pickup; if we use Caesar’s water purification plants, then we have an obligation as citizens to pay taxes to Caesar.
But then, there are some things we owe primarily to God such as a well-formed conscience, care for our souls, the duty of worship and living out Gospel values. We cannot surrender our conscience to Caesar. We cannot give our soul to Caesar. We cannot worship Caesar and we cannot accommodate our values to Caesar. Our conscience, souls and values are the signature of God within us in whose image we were all created.
Every generation, including our own, has to draw the line between what is owed to Caesar and what belongs to God. Otherwise, we face the danger of politicizing our theology and theologizing our politics. Unless there is a distance, the church can forget its prophetic mission to speak truth to power and to live by the Gospel. Unless there is a distance between “throne and altar” there will always be a dispute, sometimes heated and sometimes even violent, as to whose throne and whose altar are to be united.
The church must maintain her identity as a church. Nobody wants a church that is an arm of the state and nobody wants a state or civil government that is an arm of the church. Both church and state have their own identity and purpose and the relationship between them is a dynamic one.
We are approaching another election. It is an opportunity to make our voice heard. We should hold up in prayer whoever is elected so that, like Cyrus, the pagan king in today’s first reading, he or she will be an instrument of justice, of the promotion of the common good and of the wise exercise of freedom. We can pray that whoever is elected will appeal, as Abraham Lincoln said, “to the better angels of our nature.’” We are citizens of two cities, church and state, and the Lord calls us to give each of them the respect and fidelity they deserve.
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