TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY
Even Caesar Must Return to God
First Reading (Is 45:1,4-6):
Even Cyrus belonged to God
Second Reading (1 Thes 1:1-5): The Thessalonian believers followed God's
teachings with faith, hope and love.
Gospel (Mt 22:15-21) : The question of paying taxes
A mantis trying to stop a cart: “It is an insect. It only knows to go
forward but not to retreat. It overestimates its own ability and underestimates
its enemy.” (1)
In today's Gospel there is a line often quoted even by non-Christians:
“Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God the things that
belong to God.” It is often seen as an instruction for the Church to
separate itself from politics.
The Gospel account says that the Pharisees discussed how to entrap
Jesus by his own words. They sent their disciples to ask him, ‘Is it
lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’
The Pharisees were trying to use a ruse to trap Jesus and use this
as an excuse to frame him.
‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?’ This was s difficult question
for Jesus. He could not say that taxes must be paid to the emperor because
though the Jews had been conquered by Rome, it would bring shame and
humiliation on them if Jesus publicly encouraged the idea of paying
taxes to an imperialist. By saying that he would lose the peoples' support.
If however Jesus said that taxes should not be paid, then they would
accuse him of openly betraying the emperor and Rome. This could lead
to the death sentence for high treason.
Jesus did not give a direct answer. Instead he asked them whose head
and title were on the coin used for the tax. They answered, ‘The emperor's.’
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore
to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things
that are God's.’
Many people claim that these words of Jesus are a rationale for the
Church to avoid becoming involved in politics.
But if we look carefully at today's first Reading from the Forty-fifth
Chapter of Isaiah we will understand more clearly what Jesus was trying
Isaiah sad that the Lord grasped the right hand of Cyrus, his anointed,
to subdue nations before him. “I call
you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the
Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you,
though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of
the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the
LORD, and there is no other.” (Is 45:1,4-6)
‘Give therefore to the emperor what belongs to him and to God the things
that belong to God,’What should be given to the emperor? Coins. As the
emperor's head was engraved on the coin, return that to the emperor.
On the other hand those things that belong to God should be returned
But what belongs to God? Not a coin or material things. Rather, all
the things in the world, all people in the world, including those who
believe in God and those who do not; the ‘Chosen People’ and the Gentiles;
the Kings of Israel and of Babylon and Assyria; David, Solomon or Cyrus
and even Caesar himself; all of them belong to God.
So Jesus' words do not refer to the relationship between politics and
the Church. Jesus used this simple method to avoid answering the difficult
two-edged question and the trap others had set for him. But Jesus' words
were quite clear: what belongs to Caesar is his, what belongs to God
The two sentences are not parallel or equal. What belongs to God includes
Caesar and all he owns. In no way can any emperor be considered equal
or compared with God. Isaiah thought that even the prestigious Cyrus
belonged to God.
In Huai Nan Zi, there is a story about a mantis trying to stop a cart.
The story happened at the time when Qi Zhuang Gung was out hunting.
An insect raised its forelegs to his chariot. Zhuang Gung was very surprised
and asked what the insect was. The driver told him, “This is called
a mantis. It is an insect. It only knows to go forward but not to retreat.
It overestimates its own ability and underestimates its enemy.”
The mantis and the chariot were entirely different in kind and size.
They were two different objects from two different worlds. Just like
Caesar and God, they should not even be talked about in the same breath.
To think that to ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is
God's' means to separate political and religious power is as foolish
as the story of the mantis trying to stop the cart.
But since people so often think these remarks have a political meaning,
it does no harm to speak here about the Catholic view of participation
The Catholic Church is of the view that Christians should take part
in politics because Christians are also citizens: they are citizens
of the Kingdom of Heaven and citizens of a country.
As Christians they have all the rights and duties of a citizen. They
can vote in elections, hold public office and join different political
On the other hand, Church organizations and the hierarchy (including
bishops and priests) do well to keep a distance from politics and political
parties and not get too involved in party politics or party disputes.
If the church and society authorities can maintain a suitable distance,
the Church can at times become constructive critics of governments and
offer objective views based on Gospel principles and ideals and speak
clearly of the evangelical demands on societies and governments.
Since all of society and the world, including emperors, belong to God,
we should work to make our country become part of the Kingdom of Heaven,
full of justice, righteousness and peace, so that all within it can
live as members of the family of God the Father, loving each other without
fear. This is the ultimate goal of the faithful's participation in politics.