“The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, the world and all who dwell in it” (Ps 24:1). This inspired verse summarizes one of the central themes celebrated in today’s liturgy. It is a statement of truth about God – that the whole universe belongs to him – and also a statement of truth about the human person – that we are included in what belongs to God. We come from God and we belong to God, all human beings, including kings, because only God is the King of all!
The first reading shows us that the God of Israel is the God of pagan lands and rulers as well. Cyrus, the Emperor of the Persians, the most powerful man in the known world, was simply an instrument chosen by God. God uses this foreign ruler to carry out his plan, thereby demonstrating that the Emperor and all the great powers of the earth are under the supreme dominion of God. We who live in an age of world leaders who often pay no regard to God and his laws can take consolation in the realization that God is still in control, and he can use for his own ends even those who do not know him. Talking to Cyrus through Isaiah the prophet, God declares: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun men may know that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, there is no other.”
In the Gospel today, we meet a deceitful alliance of Pharisees and Herodians. They are not concerned so much about the supreme rule of God. Rather they are out to get Jesus, trying to force him into a dilemma with their question about paying taxes. “Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not?” They think that Jesus will have to choose one of two options: If he agrees that it is lawful to pay the tax, he will appear to be a Roman sympathizer, and the Pharisees can denounce him to the Jews, for whom the rule of Rome was an intolerable burden. On the other hand, if Jesus prohibits the tax, he will appear to be a rebel against the government, and the Herodians can report him to the Roman authorities for instigating a tax revolt.
Jesus sees through the hypocrisy behind their cunning question and exposes their real intentions by asking a question of his own: “Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites?” However, he does not refuse to answer. He sees an opportunity to teach them something about the kingdom of God who rules over the whole world and the kingdoms of men whose authority ultimately comes from God. To make his point he asks them to show him the coin used in payment of the tax. The coin in question is the silver Roman denarius, stamped with a side view of the head of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor of the time. When Jesus asks whose image is on the coin, the Pharisees have no option but to say “Caesar’s.” At this the Lord makes a brilliant and crucial teaching: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.”
Jesus’ answer is rich with meaning. He makes it clear that political and religious obligations can both be legitimately met. Paying taxes does not compromise one’s duties to God, nor does serving God exempt one from civil responsibilities. Looking deeper, we see that Jesus is really emphasizing the point made in the first reading: the whole world and everything in it, including kings and emperors of the world, belong to God and should submit to him. In the statement, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s,” Jesus subordinates the claims of Caesar to the claims of God. If the Roman coin bears Caesar’s image, then it belongs to him and should be given back to him. But what is it that “belongs to God”? What bears God’s image? It is the human person! Every human being, including Caesar, bears the image of the living God (Gen 1:27). Therefore, like Emperor Cyrus in the first reading and Emperor Caesar in the gospel, all earthly rulers and all nations of the earth are all subject to God and should submit themselves to him.
As Christians living in the world, we are to respect civil authority because in this way we cooperate with God’s plan. We “give to Caesar” by honest payment of taxes, voting in elections, serving in the military, obeying the law and participating in public life. At the same time, our vision extends beyond our own nation, and even beyond this world. We belong to God, and he commissions us to help all people know that they belong to God. This is the great task of evangelization that we focus on as we celebrate World Mission Sunday today. (Today is also the feast day of the greatest modern missionary, St. John Paul II, but the feast is not observed because it falls on a Sunday.)
Our mission is to transform society with the spirit of the gospel, like Paul, Silvanus and Timothy did in their mission to Thessalonica. Later they wrote back to the disciples there, as we read in today’s second reading. Paul and his companions declare – echoing the theme of today’s other readings – that the Church belongs not to them but “to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The missionaries are happy to be able to report that the Thessalonians, whose conversion they attribute to the power of the Holy Spirit, are following the way they have learned: “you are proving your faith, and laboring in love, and showing constancy in hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This way of living in faith, hope and love describes the mission entrusted to us all. We all have a unique and important role to play. Some are called to leave home and dedicate themselves to spreading the gospel in places where it is not yet known. Others are sent to a mission territory no further away than their own family, neighborhood and workplace. But we are all missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, working together, praying for one another, supporting one another, under the guidance of the one Holy Spirit, so that all peoples can joyfully “give to God what belongs to God.”
Am I willing to “give to God what belongs to God”? When faced with a choice between civil and religious obligations, do I seek the wisdom of the Lord? Do I pray for the grace to transform society with the spirit of the gospel?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.