By Fr. John Robert Skeldon
What truly belongs to Caesar and what truly belongs to God? Another way of putting the same question is: What belongs to the political realm and what belongs to the spiritual realm?
Jesus’ answer in the gospel passage from Matthew is genius. Though initiated as a form of entrapment by those opposed to Jesus, the answer of Jesus to the Pharisees and Herodians does not come from a post-enlightenment separation of church from state mindset. That is a very modern concern, and this Sunday’s gospel passage has nothing to do with that. So what does belong to the political realm and what does belong to the spiritual realm?
Jesus says the image imprinted determines to whom the so-called “thing” belongs. So the coin has Caesar’s image; therefore, it belongs to him. Yet, what is imprinted with God’s image? Answer: all of creation, and in particular, human beings. We read from the first story of creation in the book of Genesis (Gen. 1:26-27): “Then God said: ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.’ 27 God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” You and I and all human beings without distinction are imprinted with the image of God; therefore, all human beings belong to him. Even Cyrus, the pagan Persian king mentioned in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, and the only non-Jew referred to as an “anointed one” (Mashiach—Messiah) in the entirety of the Old Testament, belongs to the Lord God. Even though not Jewish by ethnicity or religion, he is viewed by Jews after the Babylonian exile as an “anointed one” (a messiah) because he let them return to their homeland…because of his commitment to life, to the common good and, fundamentally, to justice and mercy.
This is the understanding that lies at the heart of the church’s teaching on respect for life and the dignity of the human being, the priority of the common good and the requirement of social justice. It has to do with how we reverence life and treat each other. We cannot separate out the political realm from the spiritual realm. Politics and the political take their roots from the Greek word polis, meaning, literally, “city.” In his treatise on Politics, Aristotle said that “man is a political animal,” meaning that human beings live and work and thrive in the city, that is, in community. Thus, how we live with each other, which is what politics is fundamentally about, necessarily is part of how we relate to God (the spiritual realm). Ultimately, everything belongs to God, because God has created everything, and calls everything into being.
You and I are made in the image and likeness of God; therefore, we belong to God. There is no distinction about wealth, about age, about gender, about ethnicity, about race, about religion, about born or unborn, about legal status, about health condition, about crimes committed, about fame or fortune, about anything. Human beings—all human beings from the moment of their conception to their natural death—are made in the image and likeness of God; therefore all people belong to Him. And that, obviously, determines how we relate to each other, which is what politics is about. And it is fundamentally why the church can make pronouncements on many so-called political things, because it has to do with living a good life according to the moral law in the “city” (polis—politics), in community/society.
“Repaying to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” is not a line of demarcation in the sand where the church takes care of its own house and society takes care of its own affairs. That is a fundamental misreading of the text within its narrative context. Perhaps, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said it best in his first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love): “… [the Church] cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply” (DCE, 28).
I conclude with the first paragraph of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, because it brings together beautifully who and what the church, the body of Christ—all of us—is supposed to be in relationship to the world: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds” (GS, 1).