29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: What belongs to God?

Note: Fr. Ed’s homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time is now available online! Click here to listen.

“Repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God.”

Ancient Roman coin; Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.This is one of the most complex statements in the New Testament. Oceans of ink have been spilled trying to explain exactly what it means. Let’s begin by stating what it does not mean.

“The Earth is the Lord’s…”

For the Jews, there was no concept of any aspect of human life that was not in some way under God’s authority, as the Psalmist points out (Ps 24:1):  “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” This is demonstrated in particular by the reading from Isaiah, in which the pagan king Cyrus is referred to as an instrument of God, even though he knows Him not. The way the Scriptures refer to the Holy One of Israel’s Lordship over all nations and all creation constantly reinforces that to the Jewish people. So, from a Jewish perspective, to see that quote as somehow indicating that there were aspects of society or human life over which God had no authority would be seen as an absolutely preposterous interpretation of that quote. So any formulation that basically asserts “this over here belongs to Caesar, but that over there belongs to God,” would not be faithful to the Scriptural understanding of the Jews.

The New Testament as well, in a certain sense, blurs the distinction by its description of civil government as in some way deriving its authority from God, such as in 1 Peter 2:13-14:  “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” This would have been most easily applicable early in Israel’s history when the country was essentially a prophetic theocracy, governed by those who ruled by means of their direct contact with God. This would have applied to their rulers from Moses through the period of the Judges.

However, when they chose and were given kings, now you had a potential conflict, demonstrated as early as the rule of Saul, the first king, a conflict that arises when the king’s decrees are actually contrary to God’s will. This was pretty much the story of almost all the kings.

The rise of the prophets as those who were called to annunciate, especially to the kings, that there were fundamental principles given by God that were to be the basis of their governing decisions, resulted in this basic formulation:  God is in some way behind the authority, but the authority is only a valid exercise of authority when it governs according to God’s principles. This is essentially the Catholic position. On the one hand, God wills a certain authority to exist and for us to obey it:  “God’s fourth commandment also enjoins us to honor all who for our good have received authority in society from God.” (Catechism, #2234) On the other hand, however, “Citizens are obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order.” (Catechism, #2256)

How are we to respond?

This places on us a fundamental responsibility to be so thoroughly familiar with the moral teachings of the Church that we are in a position to adequately judge the actions of the government as to their validity. When faced with invalid actions, we then must prayerfully consider our response. An attitude that says that the government simply reflects God’s will and so should be obeyed clearly ignores the principle that the government’s actions must be judged by the content of the moral order as revealed to us by the Lord Jesus and articulated by His Church. In other words, “it’s legal so it must be moral” is not an option for us. Our response must be, “it’s legal and it is only binding if it is also in accord with the moral order.”

To be followers of the Lord Jesus now, when society is departing more and more from the moral order, places us in a very complex situation, but the King of Kings is with us. Let us call on Him for His unfailing aid!—Fr. Ed