The Gospel today contains lots of interesting juxtapositions: hatred for Jesus but grudging respect for him, real questions versus rhetorical ones, 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 juxtaposition is the placing of two things near to each other in order to see how they are similar and yet different. In English, usually 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.
I. The Plotting of the Peculiar Partners – 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 that this Jesus fellow had 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 into any worldly “club.”
Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” if it is proclaimed in its 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, immigrants’ rights, affordable housing, anti-capital punishment. 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 some reason to hate us.
Welcome to Jesus’ world where even the Herodians and Pharisees, who seem to agree on nothing, do agree to hate Jesus.
II. The Praise that is (really) a Perilous Provocation – In their opening remarks to Jesus, His enemies give him grudging respect. But they do so not to actually praise Him but 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 … Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
But this praise is largely a pretext and is used 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 or who human beings think are the best. They want Jesus to opine as if He were some sort of talking head on TV 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, or political philosophies.
We may well debate that certain systems better reflect the Kingdom than others, but in the end, God cannot be reduced to being a 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.
Generally speaking, rhetorical questions are statements or arguments posed in the form of a question. If I say to you, “Are you crazy?” I am not really looking for an answer. Though I have spoken in the form of a question, I am really making a statement: “You ARE crazy.” This is what takes place in today’s gospel. The questioners already have their own opinions 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 Him.
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 will be arrested and likely executed.
In the end, Jesus calls them what they are: hypocrites, a Greek word meaning “actor.” And that is what they are. This whole thing is an act. No real answer is sought, just a showdown. This is not about discovering the truth; it is about setting 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 into 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.
III. The Protesting of their Pretext and Pretense – Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Not every one who engages us is truly looking for an answer or for the truth. We cannot always know things, but Jesus surely could. Often, when one is engaged in a discussion about the truth of the Gospel, one discovers that authentic dialogue is not actually taking place and thus it is permissible for us to merely proclaim the truth firmly, clearly, and with due charity, and end the conversation. Jesus thus called them on their pretense and authoritatively announced the principle with a goal to ending the conversation and sending them away to think.
IV. The Pointed Proclamation of the Principle of 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 to pay to our country or locale):
- Obey all just laws.
- Pay legally assessed taxes.
- Pray for our country and its 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 ongoing reform.
- Contribute to the common good through work (domestic or 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 our 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 both verbally and by witness
- Devoted reception of the Sacraments
- Raising our children in His truth and in reverence of Him
- Evangelization (making disciples)
- Preparing for death and judgment through a holy and reverent sojourn here on earth
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 ourself (e.g., Matt 22:37). For while God is not Caesar and Caesar is not God, 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 also to be good citizens.
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 by this world as though we are aliens from another planet. 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 then expect to be an outsider, an outlier, and an outcast.
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 world view. They are more inclined to agree with their party than with the Church or even the Scriptures. And if you try to tell them that, 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) 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, or to organizations, or should permit worldly allegiances to trump what the Scriptures and the Church clearly proclaim. Sadly, today many do, and in such ways seem far more willing to render to some version of “Caesar” than to first render 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: