It may be helpful to review some of the background to the cunning question that is brought to Jesus in today’s Gospel. The Romans at the time were occupying Israel and imposing taxes on the people. The Israelites had to pay taxes using Roman coins bearing the image of the emperor Caesar. The Pharisees and the Herodians, who in this account are collaborating in their opposition to Jesus, in fact came from opposite ends of the religious spectrum; the Pharisees represented strict religious purity and separation from the Gentiles, while the Herodians were a political faction, supporters of King Herod.
Together they plotted to trap Jesus by forcing him into a dilemma. Hence, they asked him: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” They think that Jesus will have to choose one of two options. If he agrees that it is permissible to pay tax to Caesar, he will appear to be a Roman sympathizer and the Pharisees can denounce him to the Jews for whom the Roman rule was an intolerable burden. On the other hand, if he says payment of the tax is prohibited, the Herodians can report him to the Roman authorities for instigating a tax revolt.
Jesus sees their malice and hypocrisy, and immediately exposes their real intention: “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” However, he does not refuse to answer. Instead he uses the question as an opportunity to teach them a crucial lesson about God and about human beings, namely that we must respect earthly authority, but that God is the King and Ruler of all, and all of us, including emperors, must submit to God.
To make this point, Jesus asks for the coin used for taxes. The coin in question is a silver Roman denarius, stamped with a side view of the head of Tiberius Caesar, the emperor of the time. When Jesus asks whose image is on the coin, they have no option but to say “Caesar’s” – which opens the door for him to make his brilliant answer to their question: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
This teaching is rich in meaning. Jesus makes it clear that both civic and religious obligations can be legitimately met. Paying taxes, even to a secular government, does not compromise our commitment to God, nor does being a Christian exempt us from civic responsibilities. But the legitimate claims of Caesar are subordinate to the claims of God. If the Roman coin bears Caesar’s image, then it belongs to him and should be given to him. But what belongs to God? Everything! And what bears God’s image? It is especially the human person! Every human being, including Caesar, bears the image of God (cf. Gen 1:27), belongs to God, and so should be entrusted to God.
So Jesus is doing much more here than encouraging us to pay taxes. Looking deeper, we see that he is emphasizing the point made in today’s first reading: the whole world and everything in it, including kings and emperors, belong to God. The Isaiah reading teaches 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.”
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 his 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, by their “work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of 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.
It is not the mission of the Church to promote universal brotherhood in a purely worldly sense. The mission of the Church is rather to make known the communion with God and with one another made possible by the Blood of Jesus Christ. We are all, therefore, called to help others know that they belong to God, that they are made for an eternal communion with God and his saints in Heaven, and that they should “give the Lord glory and honor,” as we proclaim in today’s Responsorial Psalm. 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.”
How do I respect the laws of my country and the laws of God? Today being World Mission Sunday, in what ways am I a missionary? How am I supporting my brothers and sisters to enable them to know God better?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.