Sorry for my absence. This past weekend I wrote my post but had technical problems. The weekend before, life just overwhelmed me!
Our Gospel this Sunday is “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” It’s a familiar reading – and far richer than we may recognize.
Notice, for example, that this reading about the rights of kings is in the context of controversies about Jesus’
kingship: both the previous story, which associates Jesus with the king who gives a wedding feast, and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Note too the way the reading’s ironies about truth. The Pharisees and Herodians say, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” – which is of course exactly what they don’t believe: they lie in speaking of truth. But Jesus speaks truth to them.
More could be said on these points. My only point is to say that the Gospels are worth meditating on. They are many layered, and richer than ever we expect.
But the central teaching here is about the meaning of earthly kingship and responsibility. And Jesus teaches on two levels.
On the first level, he subverts the power of kings by shrugging his shoulders at their authority. “Whose image is this?” he asks, the perfect insult to the all-importance of Caesar. Does Caesar want this silly coin? Fine, whatever, he can have it, I sure don’t want it.
He points further, to the Old Testament teaching on idols: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell” (Psalm 115, cf. Psalm 135). Money then as now is classic idolatry (cf. Col. 3:5, and Jesus on God and mammon). All this for a dead picture of a dead president, or a distant Caesar.
Sure, I’ll pay taxes and follow the laws – because, for the most part, what Caesar wants is worth nothing to me. On one level, the Cross itself shows a kind of contempt for worldly goods.
But on another level, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” contextualizes our earthly responsibilities. We do have earthly duties. On one level, we have contempt for this world, because only
God is God, but on another level, we see everything within this world as belonging to God.
Our reading from Isaiah reminds us of this teaching, found most directly in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (The Catechism, following Thomas Aquinas, takes this verse at face value to mean that God demands that we obey Caesar in all but the extreme cases.) Our reading from Isaiah says that God has instituted even the pagan kings – whether they know it or not. “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.” Even Caesar and Herod, who killed Jesus.
It is not that Caesar gets one thing and God gets another, but that Caesar gets some things and God gets everything. Even the taxes we pay, and all our subjection to the secular governing authorities, we also pay to God – just as the true love that we give to our families and neighbors is also and above all love of God.
Jesus’s words in our Gospel only add the important caveat that it isn’t that God has chosen Caesar – in this story, Jesus doesn’t much care who Caesar is – but rather that God demands our civic responsibility.
Our Epistle is the beginning of First Thessalonians, which we will read for the rest of Ordinary Time. It is a letter about persecution by kings, with enough of an apocalyptic tone to fit the end of the Church year.
But today, all we have is “We give thanks to God always for all of you.” He gives thanks for their own merits and good works: “calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But he gives thanks because their strength for those good works comes not from themselves, but from God: “Our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”
It’s a good reminder that everything in this world, whether earthly authority or our ability to live out our earthly obligations, is a gift from God. We both live those earthly responsibilities and have a bit of contempt for how little they are because we realize that everything is from God and for God.
Do you have disorder, either too much or too little concern, for any earthly responsibilities?