They hope to discredit Him in the eyes of the people by laying a trap for Him with their question, “Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not?” At a time when the emperor was worshipped as a god, many believed that payment of taxes amounted to idolatry. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay the tax, He would seem to be allowing insult to God. If Jesus said it was not lawful to pay the tax, He would be reported to the Roman officials for treason.
Christ, however, gives His opponents a profound response, which goes far beyond a simple yes or no. He tells them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” What our Lord is reminding us is that, as citizens, we have an obligation to render to the state whatever material and personal services are required for the common good of society. Christians are called upon to obey the just laws of the state, to vote for those who seek public office, to participate as well as we can in the political and social life of the community.
At the same time, the Lord makes it clear that we are citizens not only of the state but also of the Kingdom of God (“give to God what is God’s”). The state does not enjoy absolute power and dominion. Civil authorities are obliged to act with justice in the distribution of goods and services. They must serve the common good without looking for personal gain. They have to legislate and govern with the greatest respect for the natural law and the rights of people. This includes the protection of life from the moment of conception until natural death, the defense of marriage and the family, ensuring religious liberty, and safeguarding the rights of parents regarding the education of their children.
Jesus recognized the rights that the civil power enjoys but He also stated that we have to respect the rights of God. Human activity cannot be reduced to strictly social and political spheres of action. Every individual has a profound religious dimension to his or her life. Whenever we engage in public affairs, we cannot behave as if this religious dimension were reserved only for church on Sunday. Christians, on the contrary, are challenged to be light and salt in the midst of the world. We are called to transform the environments in which we live so as to make them more human.
When it comes to fundamental questions of social morality, we should be fully aware of the fact that our faith serves as a powerful light illuminating the whole of life. The teachings of God and His Church are not an obstacle to human welfare or scientific progress. They are, rather, a sure guide for authentic growth and development. When, for example, we uphold the indissolubility of marriage, we are showing the way to guaranteeing the health of society. When we defend the sanctity and dignity of human life in the face of abortion, euthanasia, or techniques that treat human beings as mere objects, we are promoting a civilization of love. When we act with the firm conviction that the Church’s teachings are the only source capable of filling our modern age’s terrible religious and moral void, we show ourselves to be true children of God and followers of the Lord Jesus.
In spite of all social pressures and propaganda to the contrary, every Christian should imitate Christ the Lord, who was described by His opponents in this way: “You court no one’s favor and do not act out of human respect.” As we recognize and fulfill both our civic obligations and our religious ones, we will find ourselves living a coherent and consistent life. Then we will be able to do as Jesus demands: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.”
Fr. De Ladurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education, a professor of theology at Notre Dame Graduate School and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)