“Who is in charge?” or “Who is going to be in charge?” are questions that sometimes arise in an election year. As we live in a republic, our elected officials are invested with the duty and authority to enact laws and to govern the society. It is not a strict democracy where the people decide all the laws but a representative democracy whereby the people entrust governance, law making and judicial authority to individuals. A presidential election year brings these realities to mind through all the advertising and promotional materials available as well as all the media attention.
Jesus did not live in a republic or a democracy. He lived in the Roman Empire. He was, however, not a citizen so did not enjoy those associated rights but was nonetheless subject to the laws of the empire, with certain exceptions made as a Jew living in Palestine. What is similar between his time and our own is that people, human beings, are given authority either by a portion of the populace, or by force or by inheritance with the purpose of governance.
The Pharisees pose a question to Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” They are not seeking the truth of the matter but are trying to trip Jesus up, to make him say something that will offend either the Romans, his fellow Jews or any other segment of the population.
We might be familiar with this type of questioning when we watch the political processes unfolding in our own day. Jesus sees through the insincerity of the question and speaks to the truth.
“Whose image is on the coin?” he asks. “Caesar’s” is the reply. He then says: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” I sometimes think that when he said this there was a pause between “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” and “and to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus normally invites us to consider things in ways that we would not normally consider. We are all influenced by our culture and its routine patterns of living and thinking. Here he is speaking, then and now, asking us to consider a bigger picture than taxation or the political realities that have such an impact on our lives. Perhaps the bigger question might be phrased: “Who’s in charge?”
Jesus does not hesitate to bring God into the picture of everyday life — individual and communal. Caesar clearly has a role in the lives of the people he governs. Our government officials have a role in our lives. (And as a people living in a republic, we have the responsibility to participate in that governance by voting on who they will be.) Yet Jesus invites us now to think beyond the boundaries and governance models that this world sets which vary with time and place.
He invites us to consider that God is not subject to boundaries, systems of governance or man-made laws. He offers a security that no power on earth can offer. He offers a justice that no word can fully capture. He alone bestows the gift of life.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees “render unto God that which belongs to God” might cause us to wonder what he is speaking about. Just what is rendering to God what is his? What belongs to God? What can I give back to God?
He is the creator of the universe, the sun and moon, the stars and planets, the earth and all that is in it, the living things great and small, the mountains and seas, the forests and deserts, the animals and plants. He is the One who created man, male and female, and given him the freedom to love. He has entrusted this world and all it holds to mankind. He has given us his Son who is “the way, the truth and the life.” He has bestowed his Spirit so we can live in this world and at the same time be free from this world.
Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to offer thanksgiving. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that we live our lives in such a manner that we regularly recognize that all we have is a gift. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that we should “follow” the way God has made known. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that God’s way is far more sure than any of the ways of man, either as an individual or as part of a particular society or culture or nation, important as they all are.
In the midst of this election season, Jesus invites us to remember the big picture when it comes to life and living. God is the source of everything that is good including, in the words of our own Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is to him that is due praise, honor and glory.
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.
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