29th Sunday of ordinary Time
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.” Mt. 22:21
Even His enemies were forced at times to publicly recognize the greatness of Jesus, His absolute integrity, His surpassing intelligence, His unparalleled personal dignity and even His sharp wit. We see the recognition of his great integrity in today’s Gospel where the flattery of the Pharisees, which introduces a question meant to trap Jesus, in order to be effective has to be based upon a commonly recognized fact. Everyone knew that Jesus was not the kind of man who adapted his teaching in accordance with peoples’ views of him. Indeed, everyone obviously knew that Jesus was “not concerned with anyone’s opinion” and that He did “not regard a person’s status” when responding to a question. His interest was not in pleasing and winning favor, but simply in proclaiming the truth, whatever the consequences.
At the same time, we see the crowds delight at the quickness of his mind and his wit, at the way he could easily silence his enemies when they were trying to trap him. In this case, his enemies wanted to force him to reply to a question in such a way that He would either alienate the people, who deeply resented the heavy taxes levied by the Romans, or He would place himself in direct conflict with the political power represented by the Herodians who would quickly report any such treason to their Roman masters. In either case, they wanted Jesus out of the way, either by losing the loyalty of the Jewish people who followed him, or by losing his freedom or even his life at the hands of the political power of Rome.
But Jesus immediately reveals the duplicity of his interrogators. He calls them out as hypocrites, whose questioning is not sincere on at least three levels. Their question is not in search of the truth, for they themselves pay the tax, and they themselves in fact do not give to God what they pretend to give, the glory due His name.
Jesus’ reply is stunning both in its simplicity and its power. “repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. The currency with which taxes are paid literally belongs to Caesar, since Rome mints the coins, and those who use this pagan currency for their economic well-being – and this includes virtually every one in this Roman occupied territory – are simply giving back to Caesar what actually belongs to him. Moreover, taxes are not free will offerings, and even the currency with which they are paid ultimately belongs to the political authority that created that means of exchange.
But it is the second part of the answer which is so devastating to his enemies, and given the full context of his teaching, they could not possibly miss the point that he was making. He called them hypocrites mainly because although they made a great show of giving back to God what belongs to God, whereas in fact they did nothing of the sort. They were more than willing to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s, even though they detested Caesar privately, but they were not willing to give to God what was God’s. And they proved this again and again by their historical hostility to the great prophets, including John the Baptist, and finally by their unremitting hostility to Jesus himself. They claimed to give to God what is God’s, and they claimed to love God above all else But in truth, their actions betrayed their words, for they stubbornly refused to give to God the true glory that was His due, and the culmination of their lie was the refusal to believe in Jesus Christ, the true Son of God.
Now, this same drama plays itself out in every age. Men are only too quick to give to Caesar not only what belongs to Caesar but even what belongs to God. In our day, people are quick to give to the state powers which belong only to God. For instance, many Christians today readily yield to the civil authority the power to dissolve true marriages in civil courts, the power to redefine marriage itself to include the relations between persons of the same sex, the power to legalize the killing of unborn children and the aged as well as the manipulation of the very sources of human life in an effort to completely control and freely change human nature itself through technology.
All these powers are now assumed by the state, and approved by many so-called Christians, as the right of the state to displace God in the exercise of his absolute dominion over life and death. This usurpation of divine authority is happening around the globe, and how sad it is that many Christian are so willing to yield to today’s Caesars what belongs to God.
On the other hand, people today, like the Pharisees and Herodians in the Gospel are very resistant to give to God what belongs to God. They deny that the authority over life and death, in the kinds of issues I just mentioned, belongs to God alone. They deny that God’s laws rule the human conscience. Moreover most people in the world deny the most fundamental thing that all human beings owe to God by nature – the worship and the glory due to the Creator and Redeemer of all mankind. Indeed, even to suggest that mankind individually and collectively owes such homage and worship to God is seen by many today to be an affront to human dignity and freedom.
Now this yielding to Caesar what is God’s, and the these refusals to yield to God what belongs only to God, are the clearest proof that the true crisis of the modern world, at least in the West, is a crisis of faith, It is no longer simply a crisis of belief in Jesus Christ, but a crisis of belief in God, in the God who is the creator and final end of the whole universe. Like the enemies of Jesus in today’s Gospel, there are high percentages of people today in this country who claim to love God, but they reveal the hypocrisy underlying such claims when they refuse to see the worship of God as a fundamental duty, as a commandment grounded on the very relationship of a rational creature to his or her Creator, that is, as a part of the natural law even before it’s a part of the law of Christ.
Of course, there is perhaps a lot of ignorance behind this shallow religiosity, for fewer and fewer people no longer even understand the central meaning of divine worship. Such an understanding of divine worship as a duty has to begin from the very words of Jesus, “give to God what is God’s.” And what is it that man owes to God first and foremost? The answer is simple – everything; his very existence, his life, his intelligence, his freedom, and his hope. What then must man offer to God to be just? The answer seems obvious again, everything, beginning with his worship.
Caesar, the civil government, cannot demand that we surrender to him everything, nor anything that really counts in terms of human dignity and human life. But to God we owe everything, literally our very being, and if we are to attain our final purpose, our true and only happiness as creatures made in the image and likeness of the God who created us, then we must return everything to God, so that God in turn can complete the gift that He made to us in the moment of our conception, the gift of life.
St. Augustine spoke of this precious gift that we make to God in divine worship as a returning of the same gift, and much more, that God makes to us from the beginning of our creation, so that God can bring that gift to its perfection in Himself. Divine worship always entails a sacrifice, the rendering of something holy and precious to God, done for the praise of God, and for the perfection and happiness of man.
In primitive religions this sacrifice was always something external to man, something that in one way or another was blessed and then offered to God. This was true even in the Old Testament, but through revelation its true meaning was eventually revealed through the prophets. The sacrifices of the temple were meant to symbolize the greater, interior gift of the person united to God via the covenant. In the prophets we learn that God’s people is to be holy because God is holy, and the ritual washings of the priests, and the rituals surrounding the blessing of the victims, was meant to indicate that what God wanted in sacrifice was the pure heart, the love of his people, which was merely symbolized by the external offerings.
Both symbol and reality, as related to sacrifice, come together in the sacrifice of Jesus. There we see the perfect offering, the reasonable and perfect worship of God, where Jesus literally gives back everything to the Father, and where the external rite and the internal offering, or self-oblation are perfectly one. The body and blood of Jesus are not mere signs. They are in fact the foundational elements of the sacrifice of the whole victim being offered to God by the high priest of humanity.
St. Augustine spoke of this mystery in the 10th book of his City of God. “Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God.” Jesus is the perfect man, then, because he is the perfect sacrifice, the perfect offering of himself and the whole of creation back to its creator.
Indeed, St. Augustine then appealed to St. Paul to teach us how we ourselves are to be part of that sacrifice offered by Christ, how our body and our soul, our works of mercy and other good works all become part of that one perfect sacrifice offered by Christ on Calvary, and renewed perpetually on our altars. It is there, on the altars of the new covenant, in the Eucharistic sacrifice, that we become part of that perfect sacrifice offered once and for all on Calvary, perpetually renewed on our altars, and offered eternally in heaven. The Eucharist is what Paul calls our own “reasonable Service,” which is he says, “the true sacrifice of ourselves.” Only In Christ,”through Him, and with Him and in Him” can we offer that truly holy and perfect sacrifice which includes our very self, our works, our sufferings, our mercy. In spite of all the imperfections that are part of our daily lives and our frail persons, in Christ there is nothing but holiness being offered back to God.
Finally, St. Augustine pulls all this teaching together in his splendid vision of the universal sacrifice of the church made in and through Christ:
It follows that the whole redeemed city, that is to say, the congregation or community of the saints, is offered to God, as our sacrifice, through the great High Priest. This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God.
When we read these words of the great St. Augustine, what more is there to say about this marvelous conjunction of sign and reality, about Christ and the church, heaven and earth, or about giving to God what belongs to God. In the Eucharist, at last, man can truly give back to God what is God’s, the goodness and holiness of creation hidden here beneath the humble signs of bread and wine. The Holy Eucharist is the perfect sacrifice of the Lord of creation offered back to His Creator Father, Who is the Origin of everything, Who is the deep calling out to deep.
How wonderful it is that we too are caught up in this great hymn of endless glory rendered to our God. Pray that one day, Caesar will learn to b part of this great rendering unto God what is God’s alone.