“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” Jesus says to the Pharisees as they try to entrap him.
In doing so, Jesus changes the topic from the census tax to one’s disposition before the Lord. Jesus sees through the malice of the Pharisees, who seek to lure him with their insincere praise: “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.”
While the statement is true, the persons speaking it do not believe it. They are only trying to force Jesus to say something that will get him into trouble with the Roman authorities or with the general population who disdain the census tax. Jesus averts the trap with his response, while inviting all hearers to consider God’s role in the world and in their lives.
The Pharisees have clearly made a decision regarding Jesus, the one sent from God. They have rejected him and his teaching; hence they try, by duplicitous means, to destroy him. Others hearing this exchange have to decide: Is he who he claims to be? Is his teaching authentic? Does God act through him? Does God act in the world? The coin to which Jesus refers clearly belongs to Caesar, but what is it that belongs to God?
The short answer to that last question is everything. God is the Lord of life and the Lord of history. The passage from Isaiah in the first reading for today’s liturgy brings this out. The main point of that Scripture is that God acts on behalf of his people through his providential care. Even world leaders can be instruments of God’s saving activity, although they may be unaware or unworthy.
The passage from Isaiah refers to Cyrus, king of Persia. The historical context referenced in the reading is the end of the Babylonian exile and the return of the exiles to the Holy Land. Cyrus was the leader of the Persian Empire who defeated the Babylonians and allowed all captured peoples to return to their homelands.
Isaiah, speaking in the name of the Lord, does not allow Cyrus to take credit for the saving activity as he says: “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, through you know me not. I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, through you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, there is no other.”
God can and does act in the world. Everything is his, and he is the one who delivers us from evil and the one who has saved us. He continues to work in the world through his providential care, but this can only be recognized through the eyes of faith.
Our response to the one God is praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 96, today’s responsorial, is a beautiful prayer expressing such gratitude. The psalm extols God for “his wondrous deeds” and surpassing greatness. It calls us to thanksgiving: “Bring gifts and enter his courts. Worship the Lord in holy attire; trembling before him, all the earth.” The final call is to proclaim him and his greatness: “Say among the nations: The Lord is king, he governs his peoples with equity.”
The Christians of Thessolonika, to whom St. Paul writes in today’s second reading, are people who have seen in Christ Jesus the saving activity of God. They have put their faith in him, having seen the Almighty in him and having recognized that they have been saved through him. Their lives are changed because of this. Paul lauds the Thessalonians for their “work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They have recognized the all-powerful love of God for them and have responded with lives of praise and thanksgiving.
Jesus says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” As we reflect on God’s saving activity in the world and in our lives, we might want to spend some time this week pondering that which belongs to God, and how best we can offer it.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.