I don’t know if you have been following the confirmation hearings this week for Judge Amy Barrett, who is President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. If so, you may have noticed how uncannily the proceedings appear to be like what is taking place in our gospel story today. I watched fascinated as the Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats sought ways to catch Judge Barrett out, hoping to find something they could use against her to stop her nomination, and how adroitly the judge deflected their attempts, refusing to be drawn from legal issues onto political ones. In our gospel today, the Pharisees and Herodians are doing the same thing to Jesus. They pretend to respect his integrity: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth,” before they spring their trap: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?,” a “hot-button” political issue that was polarizing Jewish society at the time. The Herodians were Jews who were employed or benefited economically from the government of King Herod and his successors and therefore supported the policies of the government. Herodians favored payment of taxes to the government. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were in opposition to the Roman occupation of Israel and were not in favour of paying the taxes even though they did so.
The presence of these two groups who held opposite views on the question they posed to Jesus easily indicated to him that this was a trap. If Jesus said the tax should not be paid, the Herodians would use his statement as grounds to have him arrested. If Jesus said the tax should be paid, the Pharisees would use his statement to turn people against him. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But Jesus is way too smart for them. He asks to see a coin and they hand him a denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. The fact that they themselves were carrying the Roman coin in their purses now turns the tables, and they are caught in their own trap, especially the Pharisees. The coin bore the image of Caesar Augustus Tiberius who was the Roman emperor during the time of Jesus’ ministry. We have copies of such coins available to us today, because of past archaeological excavations. These coins carried an inscription assigning divine status to the Roman emperor. As such, the coin was considered an idolatrous object to all Jews, so what were the Pharisees doing with such objects, considering how vehemently opposed to all things Roman they were ?
“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”Matthew 22:21
Jesus says this at the end of the gospel, leaving to the Pharisees, and to us, the task of deciding what properly belongs to Caesar, and what properly belongs to God. To the Pharisees, Jesus may well be saying “Since you clearly are enjoying the benefits of Roman rule, therefore you have a responsibility to pay your fair share of taxes to the government which provides those benefits.” And it is the same for us. If we are using roads and public transport and other public facilities, we have the duty to pay for them.
But Jesus’ statement is more nuanced and thought-provoking than that. He is not putting forward any political-religious theory. He deflects the question as having nothing to do with the reign of God, which is his sole interest. This is a matter of temporalities and therefore outside of his purview, having nothing to do with his mission (cf also “tell my brother to give me my share of the inheritance” – “not my business”, Luke 12:13-14). Nor is it a question of God’s over-arching authority being shared with Caesar. The response to God must be total, not in any way divided. Questions of civil authority are secondary, even peripheral. In submitting totally to the sovereignty of God, the concerns of lesser authorities will be met. But allegiance to God must be seen as absolute.
The problem comes when human authority tries to take from what belongs to God. Obedience to human government has to be limited and finite, because government is made up of humans who are finite, fallible and limited. Total obedience can safely be given to God, because God is infinite, unlimited and, above all, infallible. Throughout human history, we have seen over and over again, human authority moving in on, and trying to take authority from, God, in the realm where God properly reigns. And it is at those places, where we , who acknowledge God as “supreme among the nations, supreme upon the earth” (Psalm 46 :10), have to protest, have to push back. As St Peter tells the Jewish supreme council, when they try to order him and the other apostles to stop preaching about Jesus, “Obedience to God must come before obedience to human authority” (Acts 5 :29).
Archbishop Fulton Sheet once wrote prophetically:
“A religion that doesn’t interfere with the secular order will soon discover that the secular order will not refrain from interfering with it.”Bishop Fulton Sheet
Bishop Sheen wrote this decades before our own time, when the truth of his statement is being borne out time and again, as we see governments of all stripes, seeking to “interfere” with God-given human rights and freedoms. And he would say to us today, “This is exactly what I have been saying. Secular authority is ‘interfering’ with your liberties. You must fight back and “interfere” with them doing so, by legitimate protest. Otherwise, it will go on and increase, your freedoms will be more and more eroded, and you will wake up and find yourself one day, under the thumb of a totalitarian system, and wonder how it ever came to this.”
Let us look at what is going on now in our Western society and imagine ourselves five or six years down the road. What will we do when our Catholic schools are told they must teach transgender identity as “gospel” truth, our Catholic hospitals are told they must perform abortions and euthanasia if asked, our Catholic churches are told they must perform same-sex marriage if approached to do so? And these are fairly obvious examples which are not difficult to foresee taking place. Looking further afield , what will our children be asked to endure- churches being forced to close down to become museums, the Christian faith made illegal and its supporters persecuted, every school, every organization forced to swear an oath of total allegiance to the state? To those who scoff and say this is pure fantasy, I say “Look around you. The seeds of these future developments are already sown.” And we remain passive, because we think, as Christians, we must obey our government totally, and not “interfere” with them. The line between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God has already been crossed over and over again, brothers and sisters, and not by God. He still allows human beings free will to make choices, good and bad, without interference. Because he still trusts us, as his disciples, to use our freedom to build the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdom of the world and help steer fallible governments into a way of life which builds up the human spirit and does not crush it, and into a future where we prepare to welcome in Jesus Christ, the Lord of history, at the end of time. The history of salvation , while divine in its origin, is played out on the stage of human history, and we help to bring it to its God-willed conclusion, by discerning carefully, and as led by the Holy Spirit to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”