The Gospel today contains lots of interesting juxtapositions: Hatred for Jesus, but grudging respect for him, real questions, versus rhetorical questions, politics and faith, duties to Caesar and duties to God. The word “juxtaposition” is from the Latin juxta (meaning “near”) and positio (meaning “place or position”). Hence a juxtaposition is the placing of two things near each other to see how they are similar and yet different. Usually, in English, a juxtaposition emphasizes differences more than similarities.
Let’s look at these one by one, spending the most time on the juxtaposition of our duties toward God and toward “Caesar.” The essential lesson in all these juxtapositions is that God will not be reduced to fit into our little categories. He is God, not man.
Juxtaposition 1 – The Enemy of my enemy is my friend. – The Gospel begins by describing an extremely unlikely set of “bedfellows.” The text says, The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians. A very unlikely set of allies here. The Pharisees hated the Herodians. It was a combination of political and racial hatred; just about as poisonous as you could get in the ancient world. Yet they both agreed on this: This Jesus has to go.
Here is an important teaching, if you’re going to be a true Christian: the world will hate you. Too many Christians think some segment of the world will agree to live in peace with us, and so we strive to forge allegiances with it. In the modern American scene some think that the Republicans, or the Democrats are natural allies for us. As we will discuss later, we really don’t fit well into either party, or, frankly, any worldly club.
Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” if it is proclaimed in an unabridged form. Issue by issue, we may appeal to one political party or another. But taken as a whole, we’re a nuisance: Pro-life, traditional family values, over here, Immigrants rights, contra capital punishment, affordable housing, etc., over there. But in the end we both please and annoy at the same time. Which is another way of saying we don’t fit into the world’s categories, and everyone has a reason to hate us.
Welcome to Jesus’ world where the Herodians and Pharisees, who agree on nothing, do agree to hate Jesus.
Juxtaposition 2 – Prophet and Lord or Political talking head? In their opening remarks to Jesus, his enemies give him grudging respect, but not to actually praise him, rather to provoke him. They say, 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. Tell us, then, what is your opinion…
Now the juxtaposition here is to use praise as a pretext, to use praise to provoke. In effect, they think they can they can force a definition on Jesus: “You’re the Man, You’re the prophet….You’re the answer man….you’re the only one around here who tells the truth no matter what.” Now none of these things are false and they bespeak a grudging respect for Jesus.
But they are only using this to draw Jesus into a worldly debate well below his pay grade. They want Jesus to take sides in a stupid human debate over politics and worldly power. They want him to get arrested and killed over something not worth dying for.
Prophets die for the truth revealed by God, not for who the “big cheese” should be in human affairs, and who human beings think are the best. They want Jesus to opine as if he were some sort of talking head on T.V., rather than the prophet and Lord that he is. A question of this sort is not worthy of Jesus’ attention. Ask this of the local Senator or mayor, but leave God out of human political distinctions and camps do not expect him to take sides. He is beyond our distinctions and will not be confined by party lines, national boundaries, political philosophies and the like.
We may well debate that certain systems better reflect the Kingdom than others, but in the end, God cannot be reduced to being an Republican, a Democrat, or for that matter an American. He is God, and he transcends our endless debates and camps. He is not a talking head, he is God.
Juxtaposition 3- Real or Rhetorical? The odd coalition of Jesus haters asks him a question: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Though this is in the form of a question, it is not a sincere question, it is a rhetorical question.
Generally speaking rhetorical questions are statements or arguments in the form of a question. If I say to you, “Are you crazy?” I am not really looking for an answer. Though it is in the form of a question, I am really making a statement: “You ARE crazy.” This is what takes takes place here. The questioners already have their own opinion, and they are not about to change based on any answer Jesus would give. They don’t really want an answer per se. They just want something to use against Jesus.
If he says, “Yes, pay the taxes.” That is politically incorrect and will make him unpopular with the crowds. If he says “No, don’t pay the taxes” he gets arrested and will likely be executed.
In the end Jesus calls them what they are: hypocrites, a Greek word which means “actor.” And that is what they are, and are doing. This whole thing is an act. No real answer is sought, just a showdown. This is not about the truth, it is about a trap.
But Jesus will have none of it. He will not be reduced to human distinctions and categories. The truth he proclaims transcends the passing political order and struggles for human power. He will not be drawn in to declaring one side or the other better. Rather, He will apply the ruler of truth evenly to all.
He is Reality in the face of rhetoric, Perfection in the face of politics, Divinity in the face of division.
Juxtaposition 4 – God and Caesar – Jesus says, simply, and in a way that transcends worldly “all or nothing” scenarios: Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
This of course generates the wish for elaboration. But in our demands for more detail, we too often seek to conceal the fact that we really know the answer. And we also betray the need of the flesh to specify everything so as to control and limit its impact.
But if a list is demanded we might include some of the following things we ought to “pay” to Caesar (i.e. in our scenario, pay to our Country and locale):
- To obey all just laws
- Pay legally assessed taxes
- Pray for our country and leaders.
- Participate in the common defense based on our abilities and state in life.
- Take an active and informed part in the political process
- Engage in movements of necessary and on-going reform
- Contribute to the common good through work, domestic and market based, and through the sharing of our abilities and talents.
- Maintain strong family ties, and raise disciplined children well prepared to contribute to the common good and the good order of society.
- Encourage patriotic love of this Country
- Strive for unity and love rooted in Truth.
And we might include some of the following in what we owe to God:
- Adoration, love and gratitude
- Obedience to his Word and Law
- Support of his Church by attendance at sacred worship, financial support and sharing of our gifts and talents
- Proclamation of his Word by witness and in verbal ways
- Devoted reception of the Sacraments.
- Raising our Children in His truth and in reverence of Him
- Evangelization – making disciples
- Preparing for death and judgement through a holy and reverent sojourn here
A glance at these lists reveals however that there is overlap, and one would expect this with God. For, He defies many of our human categories and distinctions. In effect we see a setting forth of the great commandment of Love: that we should love the Lord our God with all our soul, strength and mind, and our neighbor as our self (e.g. Matt 22:37). For, while God is not Caesar and Caesar is not God, yet love unites both categories.
Hence we see that to love our Country is to love our neighbor. To work for, support and be involved in the common good is to love our neighbor. And to love our neighbor whom we see is to begin to love God whom we do not see. Further, to seek to reform our land, secure justice, and ensure unity rooted in truth, is to help usher in the Kingdom of God. Yet again, to be rooted in God’s law, walk in his truth and raise our children as strong and disciplined disciples of the Lord is to bless this Country. To obey God and to walk in sobriety, love and self-discipline, is to render, not only to God, but to also have the ingredients of good citizenship.
However, it must be clear that God is, and must be our supreme love. And So Jesus is not setting forth a mere equivalence here. It remains a sad fact that this world is often at odds with God. And thus, we, who would be his disciples, must often accept the fact that we will be seen as aliens from another planet, according to this world. As we have already set forth, neither Jesus, nor we, should expect to fit precisely into any worldly category or club. We will be an equal-opportunity irritant to any large group. If you are going to be a faithful Catholic, expect to be an outsider, and outlier, and an outcast.
Let’s move from the abstract to the real. Is the Catholic Church Republican? Democrat? And what are you? As for me:
- I’m against abortion, and they call me a Republican
- I want greater justice for immigrants, and they call me a Democrat
- I stand against “Gay” “Marriage,” and they call me a Republican
- I work for affordable housing, and stand with unemployed in DC, and they call me a Democrat
- I talk of subsidiarity and they say: “Republican, for sure.”
- I mention the common good, and solidarity and they say, “Not only a Democrat, but a Socialist for sure.”
- Embryonic Stem cell research should end, “See, he’s Republican!”
- Not a supporter of the death penalty, standing with the Bishops and the Popes against it…”Ah, told you! He’s really a Democrat!…Dye in the wool and Yellow Dog to boot!”
Gee, and all this time I just thought I was trying to be a Catholic Christian. I just don’t seem to fit in. And, frankly, no Catholic should. We cannot be encompassed by any Party as currently defined.
Rendering to God comes first. But too many people today are more passionate about their politics than their faith. They tuck their faith under their politics and worldview. They more more inclined to agree with their party, than the Church, or even the Scriptures. And just try to tell them that, and they’ll say you’re violating Church/State barriers (a phrase not in the Constitution, by the way), or that since something is not infallibly defined (as they determine it), and thus they are free to entirely ignore the teaching of the Bishops, the Pope and/or the Catechism on any number of matters.
Hence the question goes up: Is God really first? Is his Word really the foundation of our thoughts and views? Or are we just playing games. Loving this world and working for the common good are not at odds with our love for God. But submitting to worldly categories and human divisions, and permitting them to drive our views IS most often opposed to God, who will not simply be conformed to human political movements.
God has set forth the Catholic Church to speak for him, but he has not anointed any political movement, or worldly organization to speak as such. No Catholic ought to surrender to artificial and passing distinctions, organizations, or permit worldly allegiances to them to trump what the Scriptures and the Church clearly proclaim. Sadly today, many do, and in such wise seem far more willing to render to some version of “Caesar” than to render first obedience and allegiance to God, and to the Church which speaks for Him. The Church is an object of faith, a political party is not. Render to God what is God’s.
This Song says, God and God alone is fit to take the Universe’s Throne: