Chapter 25: Rendering unto Caesar
Politics is the art of serving the common good. It is incumbent upon us to respect the political authorities, based on the principle of “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21). Sometimes, we may ask ourselves to what extent are civil laws obligatory? What unites the Church and the State, and what separates them? Can someone live like a true Christian while at the same time being engaged in politics? What experience do you have in your own country? Do you believe Christ can offer anything new in this respect?
It is evident that any political system cannot be self-sufficient and that it must be linked to moral precepts. A political system is practised by human beings, who are subject to error and whims. It is therefore possible that people may deviate easily from the good and noble path; the political is then changed from a system ordered for the good of humanity into one that is its opposite. This is our topic of today and it is based on the Gospel of the “Tribute to Caesar”.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: Paying the Tribute to Caesar (Mt 22:15-22)
15Then the Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap him in what he said. 16And they sent their disciples to him, together with the Herodians, to say, “Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in an honest way, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you. 17Tell us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied, “You hypocrites! Why do you set this trap for me? 19Let me see the money you pay the tax with.” They handed him a denarius, 20and he said, “Whose head is this? Whose name?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. He then said to them, “Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” 22This reply took them by surprise, and they left him alone and went away.
2. 1- Explanation
On his second day in Jerusalem (Mt 21:18), Jesus entered the Temple and came out only after railing against the Pharisees, accusing them seven times of hypocrisy (Mt 23:13-36). We notice that in the temple (Mt 21:23-24:1), there was a rising tension between Jesus and those with whom he is speaking. Initially, there were five controversies with them, from which Jesus emerged victorious in his wisdom and responses. The first controversy concerned authority: where did it come from, from God or from people? Jesus did not answer directly to this question, but instead he gave them three parables (the two sons; the wicked tenants of the vineyard; and the wedding feast), which demonstrated that his authority came from God. The themes of the other four controversies were: the tribute or tax due to Caesar; the resurrection of the dead; the greatest commandment; and how Christ can be at the same time Son and Lord of David.
In the Gospel of Caesar’s tax, we notice that the tone of the text indicates tension between the speakers. The atmosphere is stressful and tense. His enemies have come in order to obtain a declaration from Jesus which will lead to his arrest and a ban on him continuing his activities. In the second controversy, Matthew clarifies the purpose of the Pharisees’ council meeting: to “work out between them how to trap him in what he said” (Mt 22:15). To accomplish this goal, they sent their disciples together with the Herodians. Herod’s followers were loyal to the Romans who imposed a tax on every Jew, with the exception of children and the elderly, in addition to taxes such as customs taxes and taxes on those journeying through. The Herodians were satisfied with these taxes as they profited from them, unlike the pious Jews who were against them, because it implied acceptance of the authority of Roman colonization. Thus, Jesus’ response, whatever it might be, against or in favour of tax, would be partisan.
The Pharisees were hypocritical, redoubling their praise of and compliments to Jesus (Mt 22:16). But Jesus, who knew their tricks called them “hypocrites” (22:18), for the second time in Matthew (after Mt 15:7), and before insulting them seven times in chapter 23. Jesus abhors such duplicity in behaviour, the contradiction between what they really are and the appearance they give themselves. Before explaining Jesus’ answer, it is necessary to know that the presence of a denarius in their pockets, in the Temple, means that they approved that Caesar had rights over them. The hypocrite, in fact, deceives himself before deceiving others: he is the first victim of his theatrical and religious play-acting.
Jesus’ response “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21), was a criticism of the Pharisees, rather than of Caesar. They fell into the trap they dug for their enemy (Ps 7:13). Jesus then gave them an introduction to the rights of God, without undermining Caesar’s rights; according to him, a man could comply with his obligations, both religious and civil, especially if the edicts of the state did not contradict the moral order intended by God.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
One might well ask what belongs to God and what should be done for Him? Some say that the sentence “Give back to God what belongs to God” means to say that man must belong entirely to God; it is God who created him and saved him, and therefore man is His “property”. On the other hand, as far as Caesar is concerned, it is obvious that his authority is ephemeral and not eternal, and it is incumbent upon us to follow his edicts, as long as they do not contradict moral and human rights.
If we compare the behaviour of the Pharisees with that of the devil in the story of Jesus’ three temptations in the desert (Mt 4:1-11), we find the following similarities: they came to hamper and tempt him, just as the devil did (the verb in the original Greek language is the same in Mt 4:3 and 22:18:); they left at the end of the episode when he conquered, exactly as did the devil (the verb in the Greek language is the same in Mt 4:11 and 22:22). Added to this is the Pharisees’ behaviour which is hypocritical and malicious. Thus, the believer who prays each day, “do not lead us into temptation” must behave in a just way, distancing himself from any hypocrisy and malice towards others, and remembering these words of Jesus “All you need say is ‘Yes’ if you mean yes, ‘No’ if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Mt 5:37).
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: Political Ethics – Political and Social Engagement
The Church teaches that the social dimension is part of the nature of man. First, we belong to the family, and to the local community, then to our town or city and to the country. It is necessary to take this dimension into consideration and to respect it. The local community or country is deep-rooted in our common civilization and in our historical and cultural heritage. It is therefore necessary for man to avoid self-containment, whatever the circumstances; he must open up to his circle and cooperate with them in all human dimensions possible. He must carry out all his duties, and even more, he must work in love, over and above the category of what is due and what he is required to do.
The Church understands that every believer should respect his or her civilian superiors and obey them as St Peter has said (1Pet 2:18). This belongs to the principle of conservation of the general order, which guarantees the common good of people. No man has the right to break civil rules, unless there is a clear contradiction of God’s will and sovereignty over the world. Having said that, a person still has the right to work on changing systems that are not thus compliant. At the same time, believers should develop social and political systems in line with human dignity. Indeed, social organizations and human beings have a need of continuing conversion, to grow nearer, day after day, to what God desires for man.
On the other hand, the state and the community must ensure the development of groups and individuals. One’s homeland should ensure the freedom of citizens and promote it. The Church asks large groups not to violate the rights of minorities by deciding for them their internal administration. The state, for example, should not usurp the role of the city; and the city should not usurp the role of the family, in education, for instance. And so, it is necessary to share responsibilities and distribute powers. States should operate according to a constitution and according to rules, and not according to the whims of those responsible.
Furthermore, it is clear that there is a need to distinguish between the possibilities available in order to meet the needs. The end does not justify the means. That which the state uses to manage people’s affairs must respect human beings, along with other moral principles, such as freedom, dignity and basic rights. By respecting the common good, the Church respects the dignity of the person and his right to progress in all aspects, morally, physically and spiritually. Similarly, the person’s commitment to society encourages solidarity with others and the sharing with them of temporal, moral and spiritual goods.
4- Reading and Meditation: Reading from St Augustine (354-430)
Strangers in this Land
You are a stranger in this life: You are indeed a Christian if you feel estranged in your home and homeland, for your true homeland is above, and there you will not be a passing visitor. Here, in your home, you are a visitor, or else you would not have left it. You are compelled to leave here, for here you are a visitor. Do not be haughty, you are a visitor, whether you like it or not. Leave your home to your children, dear passing visitor; leave it to others. Leave it to those who will be visitors like you. In a hotel, don’t you leave your room to others? Do the same with your home: your father left his place, and you will leave it too to your children.
Do not stay as if you would stay forever, or as if you would never want those who stay to take your place. For whom are you working? You say: for my children. Your brother works for whom? For his children. Then, no one works for himself. Let your wealth be your support for travel, rather than an incentive for your greed. Take what you need. Do not seek pleasures. Enjoying a pleasure entails an attachment to it, but using a pleasure is a means to reach whomever you love, if he deserves so. Inappropriate use of anything is an improper use or abuse.
So, brethren, now let us sing Alleluia, not in the enjoyment of heavenly rest, but to sweeten our toil. Sing as travellers sing along the road: but keep on walking. Solace your toil by singing – do not yield to idleness. Sing but keep on walking. What do I mean by ‘walking’? I mean, press on from good to better. The Apostle says there are some who go from bad to worse. But if you press on, you keep on walking. Go forward then in virtue, in true faith and right conduct. Sing up – and keep on walking.27