Of God or Caesar

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Human beings are complex creatures, multifaceted, multi-dimensional, many layered—like an onion. We are never just one thing or another—Catholic or Protestant, conservative or progressive, married or single, rural or urban, dog person or cat person. We’re often a bunch of things, and all at once, which only complicates matters so much more, because we know we have to consciously live by the priorities we say govern our lives, all our higher level values taking precedence over our mid and lower level values. If something on my list is of prime importance, absolutely nothing can push it out of its slot. That’s why we would never want to have to reschedule major surgery, mandatory weather-related evacuations, weddings, court appointments, national holidays, total solar eclipses, and our own funeral. Whenever these very important things come around, regardless of what else is on the calendar, they will always take top priority, no questions asked. But when things of comparable importance come into conflict, we might take a pause, weigh the pros and cons, and then decide the option that is the least painful, or the least inconvenient, or the least disruptive. But regardless of our choice, someone somewhere will probably not be happy. Question is, who can we afford to disappoint?

The question Jesus was asked, whether or not he would pay the census taxe seemed straightforward. Yes or no. But in reality, there was more to it than appeared on the surface. Jesus saw into the hearts of those who posed the question. And he knew not to walk into their trap. After all, whatever his response  would confirm which of two very different positions he favored, causing one side to nod in approval, and the other to feel slighted, and eventually to walk away, to never hear his offer of reconciliation and salvation. It would not be worth the loss of half his audience. There will be other things that would cause people to choose to stay or walk away. But taxes would not be one of them. Instead, Jesus was more concerned with matters of even greater importance.

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”[1] No one saw that coming. And it was brilliant. In effect, Jesus was instructing his listeners to meet their obligations to Caesar, that is, to society as members in good standing, and for the benefit of the common good. The coin that paid the tax in question was engraved with the image of the Roman emperor, which to the children of Abraham was both an affront to God’s law which prohibited the use of graven images, as well as support for an earthly power despite claiming they owed absolute allegiance to God alone as their true king. But taxes did accomplish some good for society, and Jesus’ more immediate concern was that we fulfilled our obligations to God. So when deciding whether or not to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” clearly Jesus was not opposed to paying taxes. They pay the salaries of elected representatives, and the women and men in the armed services, law enforcement, first responders, public school teachers, just to name a few. He probably would not be opposed to paying for postage either, and driver’s licenses, fishing and hunting licenses, late return fees at the library, tobacco and alcohol, fuel emissions, and speeding tickets. But more importantly, we should “repay to God what belongs to God” with even greater attention and diligence.

So what are we obligated “to repay to God?” Clearly all we have and are come from God, and there is nothing we own or deserve that we have not received. The Holy Spirit reminds us in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.”[2] Simply put, all the earth and all the created universe belongs to God. We have no claim to anything. Nor can we ever refuse God anything that is rightfully God’s. Now in the story of creation, we read, “God blessed [those God created in his image] and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.”[3] It is clear that God entrusted the created universe to our care. But we are not owners, only stewards. We are responsible for the upkeep of earth. I’m afraid we all know we haven’t been doing a stellar job. So we need to take seriously our responsibility to conserve earth’s resources, and to ensure that we leave for the next generation access to the same wonderful gifts of nature we enjoy.

Then Jesus left us the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … [and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[4] What does that mean in terms of what we “owe” to God? It seems we have much to account for when it comes to our obligation to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. We cannot deny that we have sometimes ignored God’s commandment altogether, that we have not loved God absolutely above all else. If we were to be held to account right this moment for our debt of love to God, we would all likely fall short. But wait, there’s more! Can we also truly say we have loved our neighbor as ourselves? In answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus elaborated on the meaning of “neighbor” with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbor is anyone in need. To love our neighbor means to extend compassion, support, and assistance thoughtfully and with great care. Jesus would later admit the poor will always be with us, but by his own example, he shows us not to turn our back on our less fortunate sisters and brothers. Speaking to his disciples he was sending ahead of him, he said, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”[5]

And on other occasions throughout his ministry, Jesus explained our obligation to love our neighbor. “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”[6] “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.”[7] “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”[8] Can we confidently claim we are diligently meeting our obligation to repay to God what belongs to God? And if at any time our obligation to God conflicts with our obligation to Caesar, there should be no doubt which obligation should take higher priority. There is no fooling God. And although we believe God is patient and kind, loving and forgiving beyond measure, we will still be held to account for our deeds and our choices. So repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but don’t ever neglect what belongs to God.

Rolo B Castillo © 2017

[1] Matthew 22: 21.

[2] Psalm 24: 1.

[3] Genesis 1: 28.

[4] Matthew 22: 37, 39.

[5] Matthew 10: 8.

[6] Matthew 6: 15.

[7] Matthew 7: 1.

[8] Matthew 5: 44.

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