I’m home after having given a preached Ignatian retreat at “my happy place” this weekend – the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago. It was a grace-filled weekend and I am always filled with gratitude at the end of the retreat.
This morning I preached at the closing Mass of the retreat, the Gospel for which was the scene in Matthew’s Gospel where the Herodians and Pharisees try to trip Jesus up by asking him whether it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar. The question is intended as a no-win one: If Jesus says yes – he will diminish his standing with the people, who will view him as a Roman sympathizer. If he says no – he will be accused of sedition or treason against Rome. Heads they win, tails Jesus loses.
As is invariably the case when people set out to trap him, Jesus knows full well what the Pharisees and Herodians are trying to do are trying to do so – “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” He knows sees through their flattery, knowing that what they show on the outside is not what is in their heart.
Shown a coin of the realm, Jesus delivers his response: Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
I suggested in my reflection that it is interesting that Jesus makes his statement based on the image on the coin. That invites us to ask the question: what image is imprinted on us? And we know the answer to that – we (all of us, including Caesar) are imprinted with the image of God. It is in God’s image and likeness that we are made.
And that means that Jesus’ one line answer actually says quite a bit. It suggests that his followers have a dual allegiance: an allegiance to the teachings and commands of God, and an allegiance to the government under whose flag and laws they live, but it also makes clear the priority of those allegiances.
As Christians, we have duties to both of these realms. The rub comes when we have to face the question of what Christians should do when the God they serve and the government to which they have sworn allegiances are pulling them into a situation of divided loyalties. Jesus’ answer makes clear that Christians should render what is due to each entity until they come to the point where obedience to the state leads to a moral conflict with the God’s law, at which point God’s law prevails. We are rightly responsible to civil authority, but that authority itself is under the authority of God. Our responsibility to God is outside the oversight of the civil authority, and therefore trumps civil authority. (Today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah is a reminder of that: I am the Lord, there is no other, repeated twice in that reading. God might well say to the state of Palestine, and the state of Wisconsin and Minnesota and the United States, as Isaiah says: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not.”)
Our issue today is not about taxes. We pay plenty of them, whether we like it or not. But there are other levels of government activity that do raise questions about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s:
Should Christians protest the use of torture by their government, even if such practices might provide information that could help in the war on terror?
How should Christians respond to governmental efforts to limit the number of refugees?
How should a Christian respond when state legislatures or courts take action either to support or oppose same-sex marriage?
Should taxpayer money be used to support abortion?
How should a Christian respond to the continued use in many states of the death penalty?
These are the kind of questions that raise the challenge of today’s Gospel. The question is not whether we should pay taxes, but what do we expect – what do we demand – from a government supported by our tax dollars? What does conscience demand of Christians when the actions of their government and the teaching of their faith appear to be in conflict?
These are not easy questions, especially since you can find Christians on both sides of some of the examples I gave. And note Jesus did not answer the question posed to him in a direct way, but answered it in a way that places believers in a position of having to balance their responsibilities to the two realms. God grants us the dignity and the responsibility to use our conscience to answer the hard questions.