Being Catholic in our day and age is tough. It seems like our culture is becoming more and more secular every day, and we are constantly being told that we need to check our faith at the door when we enter the public sphere. For example, politicians frequently tell us that our religious beliefs cannot have any influence on our political views, Catholic doctors are pressured to endorse medications and medical procedures that are contrary to our faith, and openly practicing our faith is increasingly looked down upon in just about every corner of our society.
In support of this rapid secularization, people often quote Jesus’ teaching to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21), and they contend that these words promote a radical separation of church and state. On this interpretation, Jesus is saying that some things pertain to God while other things pertain to secular society, so we should limit our faith to our private lives and act just like everyone else in public.
However, that is not what the saying means. While it is understandable that 21st century Americans would take Jesus’ words that way, that reading makes no sense in its historical context. In Jesus’ world, there was no separation of church and state; there was no such thing as a secular society. Every society in the ancient Roman Empire was religious, and those religions were inextricably tied up with their politics. To read modern American ideas back into Jesus’ words is simply anachronistic; instead, the correct meaning of this saying has to be one that makes sense coming from a 1st century Jew like Jesus.
Reading in Context
To properly understand this teaching, we have to read it in context. It comes from a story in which the Pharisees try to trick Jesus by asking him if it is right to pay taxes to the Roman emperor (Matthew 22:15-22). If he says yes, they can accuse him of supporting the Roman oppression of the Jewish people, but if he says no, they can accuse him of treason against the emperor. To sidestep this conundrum, Jesus points out that the Roman coins used to pay taxes are engraved with an image of the emperor, and he utters the famous line, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Once we know the context, we can begin to decipher this enigmatic saying. Let’s begin with the first half, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” This part is fairly simple. Jesus is answering a question about paying taxes, and it is clear that Roman coins belong to Caesar because they bear his image. Consequently, with this first half of the saying, Jesus is telling his audience that they should pay the taxes the government requires of them because the money they use belongs to the government anyway.
The Image of God
The second half, “and to God what belongs to God,” is a bit trickier. The context makes it clear that taxes belong to the government, but Jesus doesn’t tell us what belongs to God. We have to figure that out for ourselves. Luckily, we can use the logic of the first half of the saying to figure out what the second half means. If “what belongs to Caesar” refers to things that bear Caesar’s image, it stands to reason that “what belongs to God” refers to things that bear God’s image. And what would those things be? We can find the answer to this question in the Old Testament:
“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and femalehe created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
We are made in God’s image. Just like ancient Roman coins bore the image of the emperor, so too does every human being bear the image of God. As a result, when Jesus tells us to give “to God what belongs to God,” he is telling us to give our whole selves over to God because we bear his image. He is telling us to give God everything we are, everything we have, and everything we do.
Once we understand this, we can see that Jesus isn’t promoting a separation of church and state; he is not saying that some things belong to secular society and others belong to God. No, he is saying that while we have legitimate obligations to the government, we have more important obligations to a higher power. The money used throughout the Roman Empire may have belonged to Caesar, but we belong to God.
This means that our faith and our commitment to God have to play an integral role in everything we do. There is no such thing as a secular sphere of action where God has no place. His place is everywhere, not just in church for one hour a week, so we cannot check our religious beliefs at the door when we enter the public sphere. For example, we cannot support laws that contradict our faith; Catholic businesspeople cannot engage in unethical business practices, and Catholic doctors cannot perform procedures that are contrary to the faith.
Simply put, we belong entirely to God, and everything we do should reflect that, no matter where it is or who it involves.