Whenever this Gospel passage come up with the well-known saying of Jesus; “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” I think of Thomas Jefferson’s view of “separation of church and state” which led to the Supreme Court ruling that stated; “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable.”
The debate of what this means continues even now two thousand years after Jesus. For us it is a constitutional issue, at the time of Jesus it was a religious and political issue.
The Roman Empire was occupying Israel and to use their coins could indicate your agreement with the occupation. In order to keep the peace the Romans permitted the Israeli leaders some authority over religious issues. We see during the arrest and trial of Jesus. The Jewish leaders arrest him and try him, and then take him to the Roman leader so he could be sentenced to death because the death sentenced was reserved to Rome. The Pharisees’ question to Jesus was a question of political loyalty; Israel or Rome, and of religious fidelity, in that Roman coins were engraved on one side with the image of the Emperor, on the other side was inscribed “Pontifex Maximus” which means the highest priest and head of the state religion. The Roman emperor considered himself a deity. A devout Jew carrying a Roman Coin with a graven image could be considered guilty of idolatry. In addition to this it was also a political issue at Jesus’ time. All of this is important to understand what is occurring in the Gospel.
When the Pharisee asks Jesus; “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” it is a question intended to trap Jesus. If he says, “yes” he will be considered a traitor to Israel by supporting the Romans, if he says, “no” he can be handed over to the Roman officials for speaking against the government. The Pharisee sees it as a “win – win” situation. Jesus asks him to show a coin and the Pharisee presents one. Now we have a Pharisee with a Roman coin that recognizes both the authority of the Roman Empire and Caesar as a deity. The Pharisee is now in a losing situation and Jesus finishes it by saying; “If you are going to use Caesar’s money, then pay Caesar’s taxes.” (my paraphrase)
We live in a world of Church and State and while the separation generally works out, there are times when it is challenging. Is it possible for us to “repay to Caesar” when it is against the Gospels and the teachings of the Church? While we can proudly pledge allegiance to the flag, we cannot follow particular laws that are immoral. We have to avoid the tendency of putting our various political leaders on the same level of authority as the Holy Father. I have seen it happen when a teaching of the Church as expressed by the Pope is different than that of our national politics and people seem comfortable with taking the side of the one that they agree with and not the one that is in agreement with the Gospel. Jesus calls us to “seek first the kingdom of God.”, and as much as I love our country it must be put second to God’s Kingdom where we hope to spend eternity. As we head toward the Fall elections may we make our decision on who to vote for one that is first and foremost based on who we are as followers of Christ. The separation of church and State does not separate us from our faith and morals.
Father Killian Loch, O.S.B.