Sunday’s readings teach us about God’s Providence, both in the external world and in the internal.
The reading from the Gospel is “Repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” The story is familiar enough, but the teaching is subtle.
On first glance we might take it for a kind of dualism. There’s a principle (contradicted by Thomas and the Catechism) that sees government and God as two unrelated principles. You have your obligations to God, and your relationship to God – and you live that out dealing with the practical realities of the State. But God really doesn’t care what you do with the State (says this incorrect reading). If you get penalized, you get penalized. Speeding tickets are just the price you pay. It has nothing to do with God.
There are various ways to respond to this, but let’s stick to the readings.
If you read Sunday’s Gospel seriously, you see that this is precisely the dualism that is being presented to Jesus. “The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians.”
The last word is key. The Pharisees think they have him trapped between two opposing parties. Either he will take the side of Herod (by paying the tax) and violate their religious principles, or he will take the side of the Pharisees (by refusing to pay the tax) and go against the secular king. Either way, the party he offends will have grounds for prosecution. Clever.
Jesus’s answer, by itself, simply dodges. By itself, he doesn’t fully answer what paying our taxes has to do with God.
But the first reading, from Isaiah, does. “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp.” Cyrus is the king of Babylon and Persia. He is not an Israelite, not a believer, not one of God’s people. He does end up helping them, but let us not miss the strangeness of calling this king God’s anointed – literally, his Messiah, or Christ, though we needn’t confuse the matter too much.
The lectionary chooses to focus on the good that can come through the secular powers, but let us not miss the point. Jeremiah says, “I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants” (25:9). Nebuchadnezzar is the most evil of all. God calls him “my servant.”
And in Romans 13 (a text quoted by Thomas and the Catechism when they teach that secular law obliges us in conscience, unless it is an inherently wicked law), it says, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (13:1-2). We’re talking about the Roman Emperors here, the ones who killed Jesus, Peter, and Paul.
Our reading from Isaiah says to the foreign king, “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. . . . It is I who arm you, though you know me not.” God is in control, even of those who do not know him.
And most importantly, this is all “For the sake of Jacob, my servant . . . so that . . . people may know that there is none besides me.”
When Romans 8 says, “for those who love God all things work together for good,” it means also that God is truly in control, even of those who hurt us. Caesar is God’s.
The point is not, of course, that we give glory to Caesar. The Psalm insists, “Give the Lord glory and honor. . . . The LORD is king, he governs the peoples with equity.”
And we too are God’s. In our reading from First Thessalonians, Paul says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you.” But why? Why does he thank God for what they do? Shouldn’t he just thank them?
He is “unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But isn’t that really their work, not God’s?
No. Just as Caesar can be both wicked in himself and still an instrument of God, so too their goodness is a gift of God. “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”
All things are in God’s hands. How that works is a mystery beyond this post(!!). But when we are hurt, let us never forget that God is working through that. And when we are good, and see good, let us give thanks to God for all his gifts.
Are there forces in your life that you could better appreciate if you saw God’s hand in them?