“Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21)

by Shiu Lan

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches us one of His famous teachings “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21).

The episode happened in the last days of Jesus, one of the contentious situations that led to Jesus’ impending Passion. The Pharisees rallied the help of the Herodians to take action against Jesus. The Herodians were supporters of the Herodian dynasty (Ref: Ignatius Catholic Study Bible on Mk 12:13). They supported Herod Antipas, the “King” or “Herod” who beheaded John the Baptist (c.f. Mt 14). It was not the first time that the Pharisees were working with the Herodians against Jesus. In Mark 3:6, we hear that after Jesus performs a healing on the Sabbath, “the Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death”.

The plot of the Pharisees is to entrap Jesus in a highly controversial political situation. They posed this question to Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Mt 22:17). From Jesus’ answer, they intend to force Jesus into a no-win position. If Jesus answers yes, His stand will be unfaithful to Judaism and the Jews’ hopes of national independence. Strict Pharisees believe that the use of the tax coin bearing the image of Caesar might even be blasphemous. If Jesus answers no, He would be in direct conflict with the Roman authorities.

Jesus uses this malicious question to teach us an important lesson that is timeless. He asks them to “show me the coin used for the tax”, and “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (Mt 22:19, 20). This takes the discussion to a completely different dimension. Pope Francis in the Angelus held on St. Peter’s Square on October 22nd 2017 said that Jesus’ famous reply “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” suggests that paying tax is not “an act of idolatry, but a legal obligation to the earthly authority”(Mt 22:21). In the second part of Jesus’ response “(Give) to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21), the Holy Father said that Jesus is “recalling the primacy of God” and we must render to God “His due as the Lord of the life and history of mankind”. While Caesar’s image is inscribed on the tax coin, God’s image is imprinted in each one of us, we who are created in His image. Therefore, we belong to Him first and foremost. God has given us all that we are and all that we have. We must live our life in recognition of this belonging and in gratitude toward our heavenly Father.

In the present day and age, we are often torn between conflicting priorities –family, work, state and church – what we believe as Catholics, what we think and choose to support may cause tension with others even with those who are close to us. This Gospel episode is a timely reminder of our relation to God; it should be our guiding principle when we make our decisions in everyday life. As St. Paul said in the second reading, the “message of the Gospel came to [us] not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Th 1:5).

Let us ponder on the papal advice at the end of the Angeles which is both encouraging and enlightening: “A believer looks to the future reality, that of God, so as to live earthly life to the fullest, and to meet its challenges with courage”. May our earthly commitments be guided by a beacon of light from the divine. Amen.

1. Pope Frances’ Angelus, St. Peter’s Square, October 22nd, 2017
2. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible on Mk 12:13