Over the last few weeks, we’ve been taking an honest look at some of the rather uncomfortable statements made by Jesus in the Gospel readings. Our eight-week message series leading up to Advent is called, More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion. The personal challenge issued to each of us in these passages should not be a source of discouragement, but rather a call to honest self-assessment and the desire for change and growth.
In the passage from Saint Matthew’s Gospel this week, the Pharisees team up with the Herodians, another Jewish sect, to entrap Jesus. It is an unholy alliance to bring down the Messiah. The Pharisees are religious patriots, bitterly opposed to the Roman occupation of Palestine at the time, while the Herodians are perfectly content to remain strange bedfellows with their Gentile rulers. Together they approach Jesus and ask him whether a Jew should pay the census tax to the Roman Empire.
It’s a trick question. Advising not to pay the tax would bring him before the authorities as an instigator of a tax revolt, but advising to pay the tax would discredit him in the eyes of the people who hated Roman rule. Jesus’ response was a simple one: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21).
While the statement is intentionally indirect, Jesus basically renders the claims of Caesar far secondary to those of God. Compared to the coin of God’s realm, Caesar’s claim is rather trivial. While Caesar demands a coin, God demands the entire human person. Our highest obligation in life, therefore, is to give ourselves back to the Lord. The uncomfortable truth is that God has claimed us for his own before we even could choose him and expects us to align our allegiance to him alone.
A common interpretation of this passage segregates the two realms belonging to God and society into two separate and exclusive kingdoms: one religious, the other secular; one spiritual, the other temporal; one holy, the other ordinary; one sacred, the other profane. In this view, the two worlds never converge.
However, God has always used the profane and the secular as instruments to carry out his divine will. Cyrus, for instance, was the king of Persia at the time the ancient Israelites were allowed to return to their homeland after a hundred years of exile in Babylon. Though Cyrus had never known or worshiped the God of Israel, the Lord used him to free the exiles.
Once, I asked a class of young people to write down the name of every group or organization to which they belonged. The most common answers were school, sports teams, family, nation, or ethnic background. Church didn’t really come up, I suppose, because it must have seemed separate and alien from the ordinary world that occupied their daily attention.
But what if we were to pledge our undivided allegiance to the one and only God by living in the temporal, secular, and profane world as his followers, rebuilding human society from within? Instead of perceiving God and culture as two separate realities, what if we were to sanctify the world by our holy actions “in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life?” (Lumen Gentium n. 31).
Father Roger Gustafson