Giving to Caesar, Giving to God
[Isa.45:1,4-6; 1Thess.1:1-5b; Mt.22:15-21]
In Matthew’s Gospel today Jesus utters the famous line ‘give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God’. What does that mean?
To answer that, let’s go back into history. 2,000 years ago, many people in Israel were great haters. The Pharisees, the Jewish leaders, hated the Roman invaders. They also hated the Jewish Herodians who supported the Roman ruler Herod Antipas.
In return, the Herodians hated the Pharisees, because they thought they were too nationalistic. And both the Pharisees and Herodians hated Jesus because (like many people today) they considered him a threat to their comfortable lifestyles.
In today’s Gospel, however, both groups put their politics aside and join together to challenge Jesus: they ask Him a question about the Roman census tax. In those days, the Roman Empire expected every man, woman and slave aged between 12 and 65 to pay an annual tax of one denarius – the equivalent of one day’s pay.
The Pharisees hated the tax for religious reasons, while the Herodians supported it for political reasons. But now that doesn’t matter, for they all want to destroy Jesus. So, they ask him, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’
They’re trying to trap Jesus. They expect that whatever answer He gives will be the wrong one. If He supports the tax He’ll anger the Jews, and if He opposes the tax He’ll upset the Romans. They quietly rub their hands with glee.
But Jesus knows what’s going on. He tells them that they’re hypocrites, and then asks them to show Him the coin they use to pay the census tax. One of them gives him a coin, a denarius. In those days, that coin had the image of the Emperor Tiberius on it.
Now, they are embarrassed. That’s because the first commandment says ‘you shall not have any graven images’, and here they are standing in the Temple, the holiest place in all of Judaism, with a coin bearing a graven image.
And it gets worse for them. The coin also has an inscription on it which says, ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.’
And on the other side of the coin it says ‘Pontifex Maximus’, or supreme priest. Basically, this coin is saying that Caesar is a god. For Jews, this is both blasphemy and idolatry.
Jesus asks them, ‘whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They sheepishly reply, ‘Caesar’s’, and then Jesus says to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.’
By focussing on the image stamped on the coin, Jesus is reminding them (and us) that we’re all created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 tells us that in the beginning, ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.’
Jesus is subtly making the point that while Caesar’s image is stamped on the coin, God’s image is actually stamped on us – on our hearts and on our lives.
By telling us to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,’ He is instructing us to be good, responsible citizens in this world. We need to pay our dues. And by telling us to ‘give to God what is God’s,’ Jesus is reminding us that we all belong to Him.
We’re not only citizens of our country; we’re also citizens of God’s Kingdom, and we have responsibilities in both places. We should not neglect one over the other.
So, how do we give to God what is God’s?
The answer is in next Sunday’s Gospel. That’s when we’ll hear a Pharisee ask Jesus, ‘Master, which is the greatest commandment of the law?’ Jesus replies that we must love God with all our hearts, with all our minds, and with all our souls. Then He say we must love our neighbour as ourselves – and so we should, for if God’s image is inscribed on us, then it must also be inscribed on everyone else around us, too.
That’s how we give to God what is God’s. God created us; He loves us and we all belong to Him. In return, God wants us to love and honour Him. He wants us to recognise all the many blessings He has given us – our families, our friends and our lives.
At the end of our first reading today, God says, ‘…apart from me, all is nothing’ (Is.45:6).
So, are you giving to God what belongs to God?