“Whose image is this and whose inscription?… Then, repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Matthew 22: 15-21.
Jesus’s reply to the Herodians: “Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” is a biblical showstopper! Coming as it does after a series of confrontations with the Pharisees.
Here Jesus is responding to his critics by telling them to “cut it out,” and he has the precise words to do it. Most of us don’t have such powers with words or the gift of an immediate come back in the middle of a heated argument.
Deep within the rhetoric of language, there is this built-in problem of either/or propositions. Life has plenty of binary choices such as left or right when driving a car, large or medium size when shopping, L.A. Dodgers or S.F. Giants when rooting for the home team, or when voting in a red state or a blue state. A binary choice is a decision between two alternatives.
Here is a personal example. Years ago, on a July day, my young nephews Tim and Phil, my sister Marian, and I traveled to New York City from their home on the Jersey Shore.
This summer outing became a yearly event where we boarded the high-speed ferry in Atlantic Highlands, navigated New York Bay, passed under the expanse of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and arriving at the downtown seaport near Wall Street.
On most days, the sight of Manhattan moored on the Hudson River, with its skyscrapers is a gigantic colossus. For anyone, including my nephews, this is an impressive sight. But more so the flight deck of the U.S.S.Intrepid, the prime attraction at the Sea, Air & Space Museum, located on Pier 86 and West 46th Street, was even more impressive.
This pot-boiler of a WW II aircraft carrier and its flight deck with the expansiveness of 873’ feet is daunting, even overwhelming to Tim, my five-year-old companion.
As we walked by the fighter-jets parked atop the long-flight deck, and with deeply-felt, heightened concern, Tim looked up at me and asked: “Uncle Mike, are we with the good guys or the bad guys?” Tim was checking to be sure.
Here’s an either/or proposition. How does a youngster fully comprehend the oversized surroundings of an aircraft carrier? How or who might use this warship for good or evil? These are weighty concerns for a five-year-old.
Let’s reflect now on this prickly gospel passage.
As his critics confronted him, Jesus’s wisdom did not focus on Caesar, nor step into rhetorical quicksand of this either/or formula. Instead, he furthered our identity and explored our capacity to serve those in need — but asking that we treat one another respectfully.
Rising like a colossus from the sea, controversial issues of morality, most especially at election time, encourage citing this particular passage when considering our American ideal of the separation of Church and state.
In his 1987 book, entitled “Caesar’s Coin: Religion and Politics in America,” Notre Dame University theologian Richard P. McBrien considers how we understand our role in American public life. McBrien writes:
“Citizenship is a matter of shared initiatives and responsibility among persons committed to mutual care. Therefore, the relationship between morality and politics is not the same as the relationship between religion and politics because concern for morality and moral values are not dependent upon religious faith or commitment. [Even] the ancients, Plato and Aristotle in particular, wedded morality and politics, without rooting the former [morality] in any religious tradition.” “Caesar’s Coin,” p.31.
As far back as Aristotle, this philosopher reasoned that the state must concern itself with virtue and the common good. Arguments over issues of morality are rarely resolved in an either/or proposition. The notion that there are good people on either side of an idea stumbles when faced with genuinely evil actors, immoral behavior, or collateral damage where the lives of children are at risk.
In this regard, Jesus’s task forwarded a deeper and more enduring invitation that we, as his followers, take on the moral and ethical life for the benefit of our sisters, brothers, and the larger society. McBrien suggests that by entering into this dialogue with the secular culture, Catholics and religious faith might significantly contribute.
How do we “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar?” Essentially, by living up to Jesus’s great teachings taught in the Beatitudes. In these actions and words, citizens honor God and become co-creators of his kingdom, entrusted with unique talents that belong to God!
Father Dick McBrien passed away in 2015 and was a dear friend of mine and so many others. As Catholics, he positively impacted how we understand our role as citizens and how we must come to terms with our deeper religious identity. On the subject of Catholic identity and its national influence, he writes:
“To be Catholic is, before all else, to be human. Catholicism is an understanding, affirmation, and expression of human existence before it is a corporate conviction about the pope or the seven sacraments, or even about Jesus Christ and redemption. The first theological questions we ask ourselves are, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are we?’ Every other theological question comes back to these. We cannot understand God, or Jesus Christ, or the Church or anything else unless and until we come to terms with the question of ourselves.” “Catholicism,” p.6.
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.