Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Mt. 22:21
Even the enemies of Jesus were forced at times to recognize His personal integrity, the combination of His intelligence, personal dignity and steadfast will. We see the recognition of his integrity in today’s Gospel where the flattery which introduces the question which is meant to trap Jesus, has to be based upon a commonly recognized truth to be effective. Clearly everyone knew that Jesus was not the kind of man who adapted his teaching in accordance with peoples views of him, that he was “not concerned with anyone’s opinion,” and that he did “not regard a person’s status” when responding to a question. His interest was not in pleasing and winning favor, but simply in the truth of the matter at hand.
At the same time, we see the crowds delight at the quickness of his mind and his wit, the way he could easily silence his enemies when they were trying to trap him. In this case, his enemies wanted to force him to reply to a question in such a way that he would either alienate the people who resented the taxes levied by the Romans, some people even to the point of rebellion, or he would place himself in direct conflict with the political power represented by the Herodians who would quickly report any such treason to their Roman masters. In either case, Jesus would be out of the way, either losing the loyalty of the Jewish people who followed him, or possibly losing his freedom or even his life at the hands of the political power of Rome.
Jesus immediately reveals the duplicity of his interrogators; they are hypocrites, and at least on three levels. Their question is not sincere; they themselves pay the tax, and they do not give to God what they pretend to give, the glory due His name.
Jesus’ reply is stunning in its simplicity and its power. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. The currency with which taxes are paid belongs to Caesar, and those who use this currency for their economic well-being, and this includes virtually every one in this Roman occupied territory, are simply giving back to Caesar what belongs to him. Taxes are not free will offerings, and even the currency with which they are paid belongs to the authority that created that means of exchange.
But it is the second part of the answer which is so devastating to his enemies, and, given the full context of his teaching, they could not possibly miss the point he was making. He called them hypocrites mainly because although they made a show of giving back to God what belongs to God, in fact they did nothing of the sort. They were more than willing to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s, even though they detested Caesar privately, but they were not willing to give to God what was God’s, and they proved it again and again, by their unremitting hostility to the prophets, to John the Baptist, and finally to Jesus himself. They claim to give to God what is God’s and they claim to love God, but in truth their actions betrayed their words, for they would not give to God the glory that was His due, and the culmination of this refusal was the refusal to believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God.
The same drama plays itself out in every age. Men are only too quick to give to Caesar not only what belongs to Caesar but even what belongs to God. In our day, people are quick to give to the state powers which belong only to God; the power to dissolve marriages in civil courts; the power to kill the child in the womb, the power to kill the aged in their beds, the power to tamper with the sources of life in an effort to completely control and freely change human nature itself through an unbridled technology. All these powers are usurped by the state that claims that it has the right to displace God in the exercise of his absolute dominion over life and death, and citizens around the globe are quite willing to give to this new Caesar what belongs to God, without any hesitation.
On the other hand, people today are very resistant to give to God what belongs to God, and not just the authority over life and death in the kinds of issues I just mentioned, but so many people in our society refuse to give to God even the fundamental thing that all human beings owe to God – the worship and glory due to the creator and end of every creature. Even to suggest that mankind individually and collectively owes worship to God is seen by many to be an affront to human dignity.
This refusal to worship God in Spirit and Truth is the final proof that the true crisis of the modern world, at least in the West, is a crisis of faith, and no longer simply a crisis of belief in Jesus Christ but a crisis of belief in God, in the God who is the creator and final end of the whole universe. Like the enemies of Jesus in today’s Gospel, there are high percentages of people today in this country who claim to love God, but they reveal the hypocrisy underlying such claims when they refuse to see the worship of God as a duty, as a commandment grounded on the very relationship of a rational creature to its creator, as a part of the natural law even before it’s a part of the law of Christ.
Of course there is perhaps a lot of ignorance behind this shallow religiosity, for most men no longer understand the central meaning of divine worship. Such an understanding has to begin from the very words of Jesus, “give to God what is God’s.” But what is it that man owes to God? The answer is simple, everything, our existence, our life, our intelligence, freedom, and hope. What then must man offer to God? The answer seems obvious again, everything. Caesar cannot demand that we give him everything, nor anything that contradicts our human dignity and human life. But to God we owe everything, our whole being, and if we are to attain our final purpose our true and only happiness as creatures made in the image and likeness of the one who created us, then we must return everything to God, so that God in turn can complete the gift he made in the moment of our creation.
St. Augustine spoke of this gift that we make to God in divine worship and that God makes to us from the beginning of our creation to its perfection in Him. Divine worship always entails a sacrifice, the rendering of something holy to God, for the praise of God, and for the perfection and happiness of man. In primitive religions this sacrifice was always something external to man, that in one way or another was blessed and then offered to God. This was true even in the Old Testament, but through revelation its true meaning was revealed through the prophets. The sacrifices of the temple were meant to symbolize the interior gift of the person united to God via the covenant. In the prophets we learn that God’s people is to be holy because God is holy, and the ritual washings of the priests, and the rituals surrounding the blessing of the victims, was meant to indicate that what God wanted in sacrifice was the pure heart, the love of his people, which was only being symbolized by the external offerings.
Finally, symbol and reality as related to sacrifice come together in the sacrifice of Jesus. There we see the perfect offering, the reasonable and perfect worship of God, where Jesus gives back everything to the Father, and where the external rite and the internal offering, or self-oblation are perfectly one. The body and blood of Jesus are not mere signs, but they are part of the sacrifice of the whole victim being offered by the high priest of humanity to the Father and creator of the universe. St. Augustine spoke of this in the 10th book of the city of God. Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God. Jesus is the perfect man because he is the perfect sacrifice, the perfect offering of himself in the world back to its creator.
Next, Augustine appeals to Paul who teaches us how we are part of that sacrifice offered by Christ, how our body and our soul, our works of mercy and other good works all become part of that great sacrifice offered by Christ once and for all on Calvary, and then renewed perpetually on our altars. It is here on the altar of the new covenant, of the Eucharistic sacrifice, that we become part of that sacrifice offered once and for all on Calvary, perpetually on our altars and eternally in heaven. The Eucharist is what Paul calls our own “reasonable Service,” which is “the true sacrifice of ourselves.” But this offering, in order to be a true sacrifice, must at the same time be whole, a holy sacrifice, and that is why it can only take place within the sacrifice of Christ being perpetually renewed on our altars. Only In Christ, through Him, and with Him – the words that conclude the Eucharistic prayer – can we offer a truly holy sacrifice which includes our whole self, our works, our sufferings, our mercy. In spite of all the imperfections that are part of our daily lives and our persons, in Christ there is nothing but holiness being offered back to God.
Finally, St. Augustine pulls all this teaching together in his vision of the universal sacrifice of the church made in and through Christ:
It follows that the whole redeemed city, that is to say, the congregation or community of the saints, is offered to God as our sacrifice through the great High Priest.
This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God.
When we read these words of St. Augustine, what more is there to say about this marvelous conjunction of sign and reality, Christ and the church, heaven and earth. In the Eucharist, at last, man can truly give back to God what is God’s, the goodness and holiness of creation hidden here beneath the humble signs of bread and wine. It is the sacrifice of the Lord of creation offered back to the Father, the Origin of everything, deep calling out to deep, and we too are caught up in this great hymn of endless glory rendered to our God.