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What Belongs to God

October 22, 2017 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause

October 22, 2017
Matthew 22:15-21
Fr. George Smiga

Today’s gospel is one of the most misread passages in the New Testament. You all know the story. People come to Jesus to ask him whether or not it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar. During Jesus’ lifetime, Palestine was under Roman rule, and the Romans demanded of every Jew the annual payment of a tax. The people wanted to know Jesus’ opinion of this practice. Asking for a coin that bore the image and inscription of the emperor Caesar, Jesus says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Well, obviously, the coin belonged to Caesar. It had his image and his inscription. So Jesus was saying that it was acceptable to pay the temple tax. So far so good.

But some commentators take the meaning of this passage further. And here is where we can easily misread it. Some suggest that Jesus is setting up two separate and parallel realms of power: one that belongs to Caesar and one that belongs to God, one that is political, and one that is religious. In Caesar’s realm you must repay to Caesar what Caesar desires, and in God’s realm you must repay to God what God desires. In this interpretation, Jesus is setting up an absolute separation between church and state.

Now the fallacy of this interpretation can be easily shown by turning the last part of Jesus’ saying into a question. How would Jesus answer this question: What belongs to God? Would Jesus answer that God’s authority is limited only to the temple or what exists in people’s hearts? He would not and could not because, as a Jew, Jesus understood that God was the creator of all things and of all people. Therefore, God’s authority could not be limited only to religious matters. It must pertain to all matters.

Now the separation of church and state is a useful concept in the political sphere. It rightly says that governments do not have the right to impose upon their citizens what they believe or how they pray. But the separation of church and state does not apply to God, because God cannot be separated from creation or from all of humanity. Everything belongs to God.

When we read this passage in this way, it is a reminder of our responsibility to exercise our rights within our political system to express the values that flow from our belief in God. Here are two of them:

As followers of Jesus we must approach things with a worldview. It is not sufficient for us only to be concerned about America and Americans, because God has created all people and has given to each person a basic human dignity. Therefore, our national policies concerning immigration or international trade agreements cannot be based only on what profits Americans. That might be okay with Caesar, but it is not okay with God. We must be people with a worldview.

We must also be people concerned about the least among us. Anyone who knows the teaching of Jesus understands that Jesus’ ministry was among the most marginalized of people. Therefore, as we set our national policies, we cannot ignore the child within his mother’s womb, the family without access to healthcare, or adopt a tax program that ignores the needs of the poorest among us. Doing that might be okay with Caesar, but it is not okay with God.

Adopting a worldview and showing concern for the least among us does not mean that we have to be either Democrat or Republican. Nor does it mean that we have to promote or reject any particular piece of legislation. But it does mean that we must be willing to judge every political party and every piece of legislation from God’s perspective. Jesus tells us that we must repay to God what belongs to God. But everything belongs to God. That is why we must be willing to express our faith, not simply here in church, but in every area of our lives.

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