Few of Christ’s words are so well known by Christians and non-Christians alike, and few of the sayings attributed to Christ have had such an enormous influence on Christian understanding of life, politics, and personal obligations. In its context in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), the saying is even richer and more profound than is generally realized. For most of the so-called “Christian centuries,” however, Christ’s words were used to bolster the Gelasian “doctrine of the two swords,” asserting that each human being must give respect and offerings to both the Emperor and to the Church. According to this teaching of long standing in the Church, human beings must obey and pay tribute to the Roman Emperor and to the Church, represented above all by the Pope in Rome. But Jesus did not say, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to the Church what is the Church’s." Simply put, the Church is not God, the Pope is not Christ, and placing the institutional Church or hierarchs in the position of God is spiritually and politically wrong and dangerous. Nor did Christ intend to fossilize the Roman Emperor into an authority to be ever respected and obeyed; he knew well that all human powers and authorities pass away in time. Jesus was not impressed with the power of Rome, nor with any human authority, civil or religious. So what is the intent of this gospel passage, and what might Christ be saying to us through it?
To interpret these words of Christ, or anyone’s words properly, one must always take into account the context in which they were spoken. In the case of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” as presented in the Gospels, the context is that of a trap being set for Jesus by Pharisees and Herodians—that is, by the super-pious, self-righteous ones and by the cynical, secular souls of the power elites. These groups hated Jesus, and sought ways to destroy him. Why? He provoked them by his wisdom and his radical reliance on God alone, and Christ challenged everything about their empty lives. Jesus was more than a thorn in their side; they experienced him as a source of destruction for all that they held dear: for the rigorous interpretation of the Law exalted by Pharisees, for pious self-righteousness, and for the power-loving spiritual emptiness of the “powers that be,” represented by the clique around King Herod (“Herodians”). Their question is a genuine search for truth, but a clever trap set to bring down the naked power of Rome on the head of Jesus—to have him killed as a political revolutionary: “Now, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answers affirmatively, “Yes, one must pay taxes,” then the masses who revere him as a true Man of God will be turned off by his conniving with the hated Roman oppressors. If Jesus answers, “No, do not pay taxes to Caesar, a false god,” then these clever connivers will turn Christ over to Rome for teaching open disobedience and rebellion. And Pilate was all too eager to crucify another rebellious Jew to protect Roman power.
I will save for this week’s homily some fuller comments on Christ’s brilliant answer, and how he side-stepped their trap—and trapped them. Suffice it to note now that Jesus turned the tables onto his slick-wicked opponents, and trapped the rigorous Pharisees in their false-consciousness: they were not truly worshipping God, but money, power, Caesar, and self. For he asked his would-be trappers to bring him a coin, and they produced one quickly, perhaps out of their money bag. Then Jesus asked them a question: “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” They knew well: “Caesar’s.” These men could readily recognize the image of the Emperor, and his name on money, but they could not recognize the Image of God standing right in front of them. The reason these men hated Jesus and sought to trap him was because they were spiritually blind and wicked: their shrunken souls could recognize Caesar and his image on money, but they could not recognize the Presence of God in Jesus Christ—God’s Image in Christ, and in every human being they met. “Blind guides” indeed.
Practical upshot: If the Emperor or the “powers that be” demand your money, pay your taxes. It is just money. And cheating on taxes is wrong and immoral. But give to God what is God’s—your heart, mind, and soul. And one’s faith and love of God are genuine if and only if one recognizes and respects the Image of the living God in every human being one meets. “And who is my neighbor?” asks a man trying to avoid God’s Image in human beings. To whom do you owe respect, kindness, charity, and truth? To Christ, and to every member of his Body—that is, to every one you meet.