29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Notice that Jesus doesn't say, “Repay Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is yours.” Or “Give to God what is ours.” Or “Give to God what is theirs.” Caesar gets back what is his. God gets all that belongs to Him. So, what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Whether we know it or not, this is the question that lies under all of our other questions about how we are participate in the affairs of the world. These are daily questions, of course, but they tend to cause us more problems around election time than any other. How can we be both citizens of this world and heirs to the Kingdom? How we think, feel, speak, and act as citizens of the world can determine whether or not we inherit the Kingdom. With our eyes firmly focused on the Kingdom, won't we eventually end up in conflict with Caesar and his rule? Absolutely. And the history of the Church bears this out. And continues to bear it out even now. What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? For us, members of the Body, the Church, the answer is easy but not uncomplicated: it ALL belongs to God! You, me, mine, yours, theirs, ours. It all belongs to God, including Caesar himself.
Is this the point Jesus is making when he says that we owe Caesar what is his and God what belongs to God? Why not just say, “It all belongs to God”? Remember what Matthew tells us about the Pharisees. They are plotting against Jesus, trying to entrap him with a legal problem. When they ask their question, our Lord “knows their malice,” and asks them in turn: “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Jesus knows that they aren't interested in a learned opinion on the Law. They aren't genuinely intellectually curious about his response. They're trying to snare him in an impossible political/religious position that they can then use against him. Jesus' brilliant response to their fake question explodes the trap. The coin has Caesar's face and inscription on it. It's his. Give it back to him. Everything else goes to God. The Romans can't fault his reply. The Pharisees can't either. But Jesus knows that everything belongs to the Father. And so do we. So, what do we – in 21st c. America – do with this bit of teaching?
We all know the standard answer here. We obey just laws. We pay our taxes. We vote in elections. We support our communities. We serve in the military. In other words, we participate in Caesar's state as upstanding, patriotic citizens. There is no contradiction btw being an exemplary citizen and a faithful Catholic. That's the standard answer. And there's nothing wrong with it. However, what happens when we come to understand that everything belongs to God? My life, your life, everything we are and everything we possess first belongs to God. You and I were and are gifted with everything we are and everything we have. Gifted. Given. You might say, “But Father! I worked all my life for my house! Nobody gave it to me!” God gave you life. He gave you the time and talent you needed to work for that house. He's giving you your life now to enjoy your house and your family and friends. At best, we can say that the things we have are borrowed from God, including our very lives. So, what happens when this truth becomes a daily reality for us? What happens when you wake up – alive and well – and note that you are alive and well? Do you give God thanks and then go about your day noticing the abundance of gifts you've been given? I hope so! Because Jesus says that we have to give it all back. At some point, it all returns to the One Who gave it to us in the first place.
The moment it all returns, the moment our borrowed lives and borrowed things go back to God is the moment we spend our short lives preparing for. Jesus says to repay Caesar what is Caesar's. Repay. Nothing more than what is owed. That's what counts as good civil citizenship. But we are also heirs to the Kingdom. On loan to this world for the salvation of the world. When we and all we have are called back, we bring back with us more than we were given. Or, at least, that's the goal. If we have used God's gifts to do His holy work, then we bring back to Him all that we owe plus substantial interest. His love in us has been perfected through our sharing of His love with others. When the Christ the Just Judge looks at you on the day of final judgment, will he see his face and inscription stamped on your soul? Will he be able to lift you up to the Father and say, “This one is mine returned to me in greater love”? Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar while you live. But remember, in the end, it ALL belongs to God.
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