There is only one God — the Creator of the universe

God was God not only of the Jews but of all humankind, including the Roman Emperor. He had created every human person in His own image (Gen 1:27).

Oct 20, 2023

Reflecting on our Sunday Readings with Archbishop Emeritus John Ha

29th Sunday in
Ordinary Time (A)
Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5;
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21

Every citizen has rights but also duties towards their country. Among such rights is religious freedom. This is the freedom to embrace a religion of one’s choice and practise it freely. But there are countries where religious authorities encounter serious challenges from civil authorities.

Today’s Gospel offers a fundamental principle to meet these challenges. In the time of Jesus, Palestine was a Roman colony. Its citizens had to pay taxes to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. As expected, they were not happy. The tension between their duty and unhappiness became an attractive issue for the Pharisees working in cahoots with the Herodians to “trap Jesus in what He said”. As things turned out, it also became an occasion for Jesus to give a fundamental lesson on the relationship between the Jews’ duty to Caesar and to God, as well as Caesar’s duty to God through his obligations to his citizens.

The issue Jesus was challenged with was: “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It was a double-edged sword. A positive answer from Jesus would land Him in trouble with the Jewish citizens. On the other hand, a negative answer would bring the wrath of the powerful Roman Emperor on Jesus.

But Jesus “was aware of their malice” because He was all-knowing. And so, He responded beyond His conspirators’ expectation. Given a denarius, a Roman coin, as He requested, He asked them a very obvious question: “Whose head is on this? Whose name?” Obviously, Caesar’s head and name were inscribed on the coin. The consequence too was obvious: the coin belonged to Caesar, the Roman Emperor.

Jesus’ answer was simple and logical: “Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” By virtue of the same logic, the next part of His response was: “and to God what belongs to God.” At face value, Jesus’ response seemed to make a clear separation between state and religion. The two were seemingly different spheres without one having to do with the other.

Nevertheless, at its deeper level, Jesus’ response was not all that clear-cut. Paying taxes to the Roman Emperor was a duty insofar as the Jews were citizens not just of Palestine but of the Roman Empire. For sure, they enjoyed certain rights as Roman citizens. But paying their secular dues did not cancel out their religious duties. The Roman Emperor was their earthly ruler but not their God. There was only one God, the Creator of the universe, the One who sent Jesus into the world to bring salvation to all fallen humankind.

God was God not only of the Jews but of all humankind, including the Roman Emperor. He had created every human person in His own image (Gen 1:27). Every human person therefore belongs to Him and must be given back to Him. The Roman Emperor, and for that matter, every earthly ruler must respect this property of His. On these grounds, every earthly ruler must first of all acknowledge God’s universal lordship and accept his/her own position as reflective and representative of it. He/she must thus govern those under his/her charge with respect for God’s Will.

This is clear in the First Reading. There Isaiah prophesied the rise of Cyrus, the Persian Emperor, towards the end of the exile of God’s people in Babylon. This Persian King would issue a decree for the safe return of the exile to their homeland. The prophet saw the exile as God’s punishment on His unfaithful people and their return as His care for them.

In all of this, He made use of earthly powers: the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians. God was in control and all earthly kings ruled as instruments of His.

So, in the time of Jesus, Caesar was also God’s representative on earth. All citizens belonged to God and Caesar must give them back to God. An important part of this giving back was to allow them to practise their faith freely and duly. This would entail providing them, where necessary, with all they needed to practise their faith fully, without meddling with this practice.

Jesus’ response provides the fundamental principle for challenging the harmonious relationship between state and religion in any country. Every lawful government is put there by God to look after the well-being of all its citizens. It must itself acknowledge that they belong to God and must give them back to God. They do this by governing the nation with due respect to God’s Will which essentially consists in justice and equality. Adherents of a religion must fulfil their duties towards the state and comply with state laws. The state authority must respect and uphold the citizens’ right to practise their faith freely and support it even financially where necessary. Caesar must also give back to God what belongs to God!

Total Comments:0