What Actually Does Belong To Caesar?

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6 – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5 – Matthew 22:15-21.

Andrew was a little boy who was very fortunate in having loving parents who provided for his every need and spoiled him rotten! He had designer clothes, ‘must-have’ toys, and he was given pocket money every Saturday. At Christmas and for his birthdays, he got more gifts and more presents than any of his peers. Angus was a little boy who lived quite near Andrew, but he was treated very differently by his parents. Poor Angus had drawn the short straw in life. His parents couldn’t care less about him and left him to get by on whatever they could be bothered to give him. He had to wash and iron his tatty old clothes himself. Even at Christmas and on his birthdays, he didn’t receive any toys or pocket money. Now, these two little boys were friends and they used to play together. One day Angus broke one of Andrew’s toys by mistake. Andrew was so furious that he called Angus all sorts of nasty names and deliberately demeaned him by saying that he couldn’t play with his expensive toys ever again because there was no way Angus could afford to replace them.

Andrew’s mum happened to overhear him say this. She took her son to one side to have a word! What she said was, ‘Engage your brain, Andrew. Your dad has freely given you every single thing you have. Nothing was yours to start with. Can you name anything you have that he hasn’t given you because he loves you so much? Hey?’ She gave him one of her looks. Andrew hung his head in shame. Bullseye! Mum had got her message home. Andrew realised that all his possessions had been given to him as presents… that the nice home he was brought up in and the schooling he was having weren’t things he’d earned, things that were just his. He learnt very quickly to share his toys with Angus. Just like little Andrew, we don’t actually ‘own’ anything; nor did the mighty Caesar Tiberius in today’s Gospel reading.

In the Gospel, the Pharisees sent two parties to Jesus – the Pharisees’ disciples (rather than the leaders themselves) along with Herodians – to enquire whether or not it was permissible to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor, the Caesar. Notice the identity of the parties they sent, which clearly suggests that both were in broad opposition to Jesus. The Pharisees (the parushi who adhered to the Mosaic laws of purity) were theologically against the payment of taxes to a ritually-impure Gentile monarch, and were opposed to compromise with the Roman occupiers who had been in control since the year 6 AD. The Herodians (the party of Herod Antipas, the ruling Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea) supported politically autonomous rule over against Roman rule, but were not themselves subject to Roman taxation because of Herod. Having plotted together against Jesus from the beginning of His mission (cf. Mk 3:6), these two parties came together to trap Jesus. The Greek verb in the text is pagideuo which means to trap or to entangle a hunted animal (cf. Eccl 9:12). Here we see conflicting parties uniting in order to entangle, to incriminate Him.

Jesus demanded to see a coin of the type used to pay taxes. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that the very people who were keen on political independence and ritual purity happened to have a coin symbolic of political collusion and spiritual compromise on them? He asked his questioners: ‘whose image [head] is this?’ It was Caesar’s. Then He said to them: ‘Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God’. Images of the Roman emperors were imprinted on the coins in circulation to certify who was in charge. The coins “took the face” ‘lambano prosopon’ of each new Caesar after the death of the previous one, and the coins with the former image were taken out of circulation. The image (the ‘eikon’) of the Caesar on the coin was only in circulation as long as that particular Caesar lived. Similarly, whatever belonged to the temporal and transient Caesar was itself temporal and transient.

Let’s make a comparison with what happens to what eternally belongs to God, i.e. the human soul. Even Caesar’s soul belongs to God, because the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps 24:1). Caesar had his head on a coin, but God gifted Caesar with his head, his mind, his body, his life, his soul, and with everything that he thought he owned, because God is his Creator. So, what do Caesars both ancient and modern actually own? Nothing! Nada! Zero! Zilch! Everything each Caesar ‘owns’ really belongs to God. Who, then, do you choose: God or Caesar? Do you choose the One to Whom everything belongs and is eternal, or do you choose someone who doesn’t actually ‘own’ anything and is passing, temporal? To put the question another way, would you rather choose a mass-produced product that functions but doesn’t last long, or a fine product that lasts and lasts and delivers? I’m sure you’d choose God, for everyone loves quality, longevity and performance.

Jesus refused to go down the political path in order to realise the Kingdom of God on earth, and He refused to become entangled in the ambitions of those who wanted to make him king (Jn 6:15). In the First Reading, God used Cyrus, a Persian King rather than an Israelite, to bring about the liberation and restoration of Israel. Cyrus was declared by the prophet Isaiah to be the anointed of the Lord to rebuild Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. God chooses all sorts of people to accomplish His Will, including people from the bottom of the heap to the top, because everyone and everything belongs to Him (Deut 10:14). That is why ‘giv[ing] to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’ means ‘giving to God that which is totally His in the first place’. Caesar actually owns nothing!

Every Christian has dual citizenship of earth and of heaven. Yes, we owe civil obedience to the government of our country (cf. Titus 3:1) unless it would be contradictory to the Faith to submit; but our obedience to God encompasses our religious, civil, political, economic and social duties (Ps 89:18-28)! The leaders of this world urgently need to be reminded that their authority and powers were given to them by God specifically to be used in service of His people. All people are loved dearly in the eyes of God (Mt 5:43ff), and they are due their just rights and privileges. In the same way as citizens owe their leaders obedience (cf. Rom 13:1), leaders owe their people respect and service (Ac 10:34f). And like little Andrew in our first story (the privileged boy who learned to share his toys through the realization that they were all presents), we ought to live out our lives in the full awareness that everything we have is gifted to us by our God our Maker. May the Lord help us to conform our lives in obedience to Him, and continually to be aware with deep gratitude that He is the be-all and end-all of our lives. Amen. God bless you.