At Mass today, I got a bit frustrated. We were at a Confirmation and the bishop said that the Gospel reading (the famous, "Give to Caeser what is Caeser's, but to God what is God's" which has so much depth to it) was not really about Church and state but about stewardship. He lost me and I think he lost the rest of the congregation as well.
As I was praying after Communion, it seemed to me that perhaps God was calling me to use this site to offer reflections on the readings, at least for Sunday. These have no official standing of any kind; they are merely the musings of a lay Catholic with an undergraduate theology degree.
So here goes:
The 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1 - Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Reading 2 - 1 Thess. 1:1-5b
Gospel - Matt. 22:15-21
To say these readings have nothing to do with Church and state is to be totally misleading. Clearly, the Church by posing these readings in juxtaposition to one another is trying to teach us a lesson on the relations between Church and state. But it's a bit deeper than that, as we'll see in a moment.
First, let me point out that many people throw Jesus's rightly famous line, "Give to Caeser what is Caeser's, but to God what is God's," in the face of the Church. The implication is that Jesus's saying means, "If the state has made a law, then the Church can't say anything against that law since that is Caeser speaking." But that is clearly not the case. If that were so, then what God established earlier would no longer be valid.
What had He established? That He is King over all the earth -- King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Those are not mere salutary, pompous and extraneous titles. God is King over all the earth, the Psalmist says. And in the reading from Isaiah, the Lord is making it clear to Cyrus that he is but an instrument of the Lord's will being used to bring about His ends. This does not mean that Cyrus is a mere pawn to God and that God has no care for the person of Cyrus. Rather, it means that Cyrus is blind to the reality of who God is and Cyrus' own place in the history of salvation.
The constant refrain throughout the first reading is "I am the Lord, there is no other." And therein lies the key to understanding what Jesus said.
The position that He was being placed in was no-win. If He said, "Yes, pay the tax," then the Pharisees would have jumped all over him because they found it (rightly) odious to pay a tax that funded the troops who suppressed the Israelites. Remember, too, that Caeser claimed some divinity and that many worshipped him as a god and this tax could be seen as a tribute to a god -- which is blasphemy and punishable by death. If He said, "No, don't pay it," then the Herodians, those who were loyal to King Herod, would have had legal ground on which to arrest Him and try Him for treason. Death if He does, and death if He doesn't.
So while Jesus is clever because His answer gets him out of trouble, it is far more than clever. He knows that He has come to establish the Kingdom. He knows all that the prophets said before Him about God being King over all the earth and "His judgments prevail" and "I am the Lord, there is no other."
We are subject to the emperor, but we are far more subject to God. His laws are above Caeser's laws. Caeser, like Cyrus, is in God's hand. Notice that Jesus told them to give to Caeser what Caeser had on the coin -- his image. In fact, by using the language, "Whose image is this, and whose inscription?", Jesus is recalling them back to the beginning, back to Genesis 2. If Caeser's image is on the coin, then give that to Caeser. But, if God made us in His image and likeness, with His supernatural inscprition in our hearts, then "We must render to God what is God's." (This observation, of course, is not original to me. It is something the Fathers talked about at the beginning of the Church's history; I simply don't remember who it was.)
And that is where the conflict between Church and state occurs. The state so often tries to claim a stake in the direction of our lives without considering who we are -- made in the imago Dei. When that happens, conflict between the Church and the state follows. If Caeser passes a law that goes contrary to the imago Dei, then that law is void. This is old Catholic teaching and it is based on this passage. But it also leads to confrontations, confrontations that can be really ugly and brutal.
But if we give to God what is God's, then He will recognize us in the end and bring us to dwell with Him in everlasting joy -- something Caeser can promise, but never do.