TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Even Caesar Must Return to God
First Reading (Is 45:1,4-6): Even Cyrus belonged to God
Second Reading (1 Thes 1:1-5): The Thessalonian believers followed God's teachings with faith, hope and love.
Gospel (Mt 22:15-21) : The question of paying taxes
A mantis trying to stop a cart: “It is an insect. It only knows to go forward but not to retreat. It overestimates its own ability and underestimates its enemy.” (1)
In today's Gospel there is a line often quoted even by non-Christians: “Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God.” It is often seen as an instruction for the Church to separate itself from politics.
The Gospel account says that the Pharisees discussed how to entrap Jesus by his own words. They sent their disciples to ask him, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’
The Pharisees were trying to use a ruse to trap Jesus and use this as an excuse to frame him.
‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?’ This was s difficult question for Jesus. He could not say that taxes must be paid to the emperor because though the Jews had been conquered by Rome, it would bring shame and humiliation on them if Jesus publicly encouraged the idea of paying taxes to an imperialist. By saying that he would lose the peoples' support. If however Jesus said that taxes should not be paid, then they would accuse him of openly betraying the emperor and Rome. This could lead to the death sentence for high treason.
Jesus did not give a direct answer. Instead he asked them whose head and title were on the coin used for the tax. They answered, ‘The emperor's.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.’
Many people claim that these words of Jesus are a rationale for the Church to avoid becoming involved in politics.
But if we look carefully at today's first Reading from the Forty-fifth Chapter of Isaiah we will understand more clearly what Jesus was trying to say.
Isaiah sad that the Lord grasped the right hand of Cyrus, his anointed, to subdue nations before him. “I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.” (Is 45:1,4-6)
‘Give therefore to the emperor what belongs to him and to God the things that belong to God,’What should be given to the emperor? Coins. As the emperor's head was engraved on the coin, return that to the emperor. On the other hand those things that belong to God should be returned to God.
But what belongs to God? Not a coin or material things. Rather, all the things in the world, all people in the world, including those who believe in God and those who do not; the ‘Chosen People’ and the Gentiles; the Kings of Israel and of Babylon and Assyria; David, Solomon or Cyrus and even Caesar himself; all of them belong to God.
So Jesus' words do not refer to the relationship between politics and the Church. Jesus used this simple method to avoid answering the difficult two-edged question and the trap others had set for him. But Jesus' words were quite clear: what belongs to Caesar is his, what belongs to God is God's.
The two sentences are not parallel or equal. What belongs to God includes Caesar and all he owns. In no way can any emperor be considered equal or compared with God. Isaiah thought that even the prestigious Cyrus belonged to God.
In Huai Nan Zi, there is a story about a mantis trying to stop a cart. The story happened at the time when Qi Zhuang Gung was out hunting. An insect raised its forelegs to his chariot. Zhuang Gung was very surprised and asked what the insect was. The driver told him, “This is called a mantis. It is an insect. It only knows to go forward but not to retreat. It overestimates its own ability and underestimates its enemy.”
The mantis and the chariot were entirely different in kind and size. They were two different objects from two different worlds. Just like Caesar and God, they should not even be talked about in the same breath. To think that to ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's' means to separate political and religious power is as foolish as the story of the mantis trying to stop the cart.
But since people so often think these remarks have a political meaning, it does no harm to speak here about the Catholic view of participation in politics.
The Catholic Church is of the view that Christians should take part in politics because Christians are also citizens: they are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and citizens of a country.
As Christians they have all the rights and duties of a citizen. They can vote in elections, hold public office and join different political parties.
On the other hand, Church organizations and the hierarchy (including bishops and priests) do well to keep a distance from politics and political parties and not get too involved in party politics or party disputes. If the church and society authorities can maintain a suitable distance, the Church can at times become constructive critics of governments and offer objective views based on Gospel principles and ideals and speak clearly of the evangelical demands on societies and governments.
Since all of society and the world, including emperors, belong to God, we should work to make our country become part of the Kingdom of Heaven, full of justice, righteousness and peace, so that all within it can live as members of the family of God the Father, loving each other without fear. This is the ultimate goal of the faithful's participation in politics.