Father Donald Senior, CP

Oct. 18: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

God and Caesar

Is 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10; 1 Thes 1:1-5; Mt 22:15-21

We are only a few days away from a national election that virtually everyone concedes has great consequences in these unusual days of pandemic and rancor. I am sure the editors of the Lectionary, used worldwide, did not have this in mind when they chose the readings for today. Nevertheless, there is an eerie connection.

The rationale of the Lectionary is that the Gospel selection sets the tone for the choice of the first reading and the Psalm response (the second reading runs sequentially and is not explicitly connected with the other readings). The Gospel selection for today is the famous encounter of Jesus and his Pharisee opponents who try to entrap him with a trick question: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” 

The “census” or “head” tax was levied by the Romans after they took over in Judea and Samaria in 6 A.D. It was a perennial source of controversy. The sense of the question was to force Jesus either to renounce the tax and put him in conflict with the ruling authorities or to comply and appear that he was capitulating to Roman rule. 

Jesus foils their trap by first asking for a Roman coin, which had an engraving of the emperor on it. This is something Jesus does not have in his possession, but they do. Then he answers with a clever and somewhat enigmatic riposte: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This is one of the most debated sayings of Jesus in all the New Testament.

The first reading from Isaiah adds some additional complexity. The prophet speaks of Cyrus, the emperor of Persia (c. 600-530 B.C.), as the “anointed” one or the “messiah.” Cyrus was the ruler who had permitted the Jews to return from their Babylonian exile — a work of deliverance much appreciated in the Bible.

Isaiah praises Cyrus but emphasizes that the impulse for this was from the God of Israel on behalf of his people. God gave Cyrus the authority to be the ruler: “I have called you by your name, giving a title, though you knew me not. I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me.”

The response Psalm 96 makes a similar point that the sovereignty of God is above all human rulers: “Worship the Lord, in holy attire; tremble before him, all the earth; say among the nations: The Lord is king, he governs the peoples with equity.”

What is the lesson of our Scriptures today, as we ponder our responsibilities as Christians and as citizens? Putting this Gospel passage in the context of the entire Scriptures, it is clear that “what belongs to God” is, in fact, everything — our world, our very being, including our efforts to live justly and well. 

But Jesus also says, “repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Is this only a ploy to baffle his opponents? Or is there a legitimate (God-given) authority that belongs to human rulers? Both Paul in his Letter to the Romans and the author of 1 Peter explicitly counsel their communities to honor the legitimate authority of the emperor to maintain public order, even as they are aware of excesses and inequities of the imperial court.

In a recent essay, a thoughtful political commentator noted that for many years he had been an atheist, but gradually had been drawn to a life of Christian faith. He confessed, however, that most of his political values remained unchanged. He learned the civic virtues of justice, honesty and integrity from his family, his education and the example of other good people. 

His Christian faith had not changed those values but did lift up more intensely the need to care for the poor and vulnerable and the desire for reconciliation among the factions of our society. Even more fundamentally, his faith had given him an understanding of all reality on a deeper level and the need to be responsible. 

The question is timely for us today: What does our Christian faith prompt us to render to Caesar?


  • scripture