In today’s Gospel, we once again encounter the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus and catch Him in a contradiction. They surround Him with their own disciples – the religious authority of the day – and with representatives from Herod, the governmental authority of the day. Then they try to make Him pick between them: between God and government. They asked Him a seemingly simple question: is it or is it not lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar?
Jesus could have said “Yes.” Problem is, if He said that He was condoning paying a tribute to the government that went against the religious demands of Judaism. The coin had Caesar’s image on it and the Roman Empire considered Caesar a god. Therefore, if Jesus said yes, He was condoning idolatry and the worship of a false god. His status as a religious teacher would have been severely damaged or destroyed.
Jesus could have said “No.” Problem is, if He said that, then He was rebelling and encouraging rebellion against the ruling government. He could have been jailed as a rebel, or flogged, or had His sermons subpoenaed by the mayor of Houston.
He could have been jailed as a rebel, or flogged, or had His sermons subpoenaed by the mayor of Houston.
The Pharisees were trying to catch Our Lord in one of the great “gotcha” questions of all time. But the Lord of Truth is not one to be fooled by the Pharisees. He calls them hypocrites, for after all they fancied themselves religious teachers, also, and yet they paid the census tax without fuss. He knew that they were trying to test Him.
Not only that, but He asks them – the Pharisees – to show Him the coin. Notice that they have one handy. They can’t claim that they are avoiding the very thing they want Jesus to avoid. They don’t even seem to notice the depth of their hypocrisy.
Our Lord examines the coin and asks them whose image and inscription is on it. They reply, “Caesar’s.” He could have at that point exclaimed, “You try to catch me in supporting idolatry, and yet your own coin condemns you.” But He didn’t. He had an even better answer: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Instead of hoisting them on the point of their own hypocrisy, Our Lord provides us (and, one hopes, the Pharisees themselves) a valuable teaching. If you make use of the things of the world, give to the world’s authorities what is their due. But, also, give to God what is due to God.
When we look at our own money, it has pictures on it, also. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson… the dead presidents. Now, we don’t worship our presidents or think that they are gods. Far from it. And we don’t worship our money. [Some of you are nodding and some look a little worried right now. Just thought you should know.] But money and government are things of this world; we as Christians should have our eyes focused on the things of the next world.
How do we render unto God what is God’s? We’ve had a whole series of Gospel readings in recent weeks that point us toward that answer. But we don’t have to turn back to previous week’s readings to see the answer; it is here for us again today, in today’s readings.
In the first reading, the Lord is speaking to Cyrus. But He is also speaking to us. God says that He calls Cyrus by name… just as He calls us by name. God arms Cyrus for battle, just as He arms us for battle. Yes, the battles we face are very different from the battles Cyrus fought, but both of the battles are fought to the same end: for the glory of God, and so that all people may know that He is Lord and there is no other.
In the psalm we sang today, the psalmist wrote, “Give the Lord glory and honor. Give to the LORD, you families of nations, give to the LORD glory and praise; give to the LORD the glory due his name!”
If we are to render unto God what is God’s, it is safe to conclude that one of the things we should render unto Him is praise and glory worthy of His Holy Name. How do we do that? Let’s continue with what the psalmist wrote: “Bring gifts, and enter his courts. Worship the LORD, in holy attire.”
Remember last week’s Gospel in which the man without a wedding garment was cast into the outer darkness? As Father told us, the wedding garment is a symbol of the man’s Christian dignity; without it, that man was not worthy of heaven. He had it – the king would not have expected him to have something he never owned – but he lost it, and he lost it through sinful deeds.
So we can render unto God what is God’s by not sinning. But we can take it much farther than that. Instead of merely not doing the things we shouldn’t be doing anyway, instead we can do the things that we ought to do. We can do the good deeds that Christian dignity demands and that God so desires.
Paul, in the section of the letter to the Thessalonians we heard today, wrote that he was “unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father.” He is writing as much to us as he was to the ancient Church in Thessalonica. We should be constantly performing works of faith and labors of love so that Paul is able to call them to mind. If Paul were to write a letter to St. Sabina’s parish down in Belton, we should want very much for him to write, “I hope your works of faith and labors of love are equal to your brothers and sisters in Christ at Our Lady of Lourdes in Raytown. Those folks rock.”
And why would we want him to write that? Bragging rights? Hardly! Because it would be a clear sign that we are rendering unto God what is God’s, as Our Lord calls us to do.
There are probably just as many hypocrites in the world today as there were 2000 years ago, adjusted of course for population growth. There are probably just as many people not rendering unto God what is God’s. And you know what? We should be praying for them. We should be hoping they respond to the grace God gives them and repent. But, mostly, we should be setting the example that our Christian dignity calls us to set because it is the right thing to do, and because we are rendering unto God what is God’s.
In the words of St. Francis: Preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words. We do this by rendering unto God what is God’s by conforming our ways to God’s ways and by living a life that would cause Paul to write of us, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.”