“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s
and to God, the things that are God’s.” Mark
There is a saying that even the devil quotes scripture. That is
because many Biblical passages can be construed to have very different
meanings. The saying of Jesus in today’s Gospel story must
be one of the devil’s favorites. It has been used to justify
total separation, not just of church and state, but more importantly,
of our individual allegiances to the two spheres they embody or,
as Dennis Hamm, S.J. pointed out in America recently, an
excuse for us to duck our obligations in justice. The devil would
argue, for example, that popes and bishops’ conferences have
no business commenting on economics or social justice. That’s
The story in today’s Gospel involves a kind of debate well
known in rabbinical circles, in which the antagonist poses a question
for which there is no safe answer. In this case, saying “Yes,
it is lawful” will offend the observant Jews, and saying “No”
will offend the Roman occupiers. As the lead-in says, “They
sought to entrap him”. The trick, in this type of verbal sparring,
was to pose a counter question – one with a Biblical allusion.
In this case that allusion was in the word “image”.
“Whose image is this?” The word for image here
is the same as the one in Genesis, where the inspired author says
that humans were made in the image of God. While the coin carries
Caesar’s image, we humans carry God’s image. Jesus’
retort is not about taxes or separation of church and state. “Render
to God the things that are God’s” does not mean “Confine
God to rituals and worship” – the stuff we think of
as “church” or “religion”. Rather, all humanity,
and all its entanglements and ramifications, are God’s. We
owe ultimate allegiance to God in everything human, and to God only.
Jesus’ antagonists would not have failed to get the point,
and it seems clear that the earliest Christians got it, too, as
they soon found themselves in trouble when they refused to give
to Caesar the full allegiance he demanded.
Always, as we ponder scriptural passages, we must strive to understand
not only what Jesus meant, but also why the Spirit guided the evangelists
to include a particular saying or episode in their compilation of
the good news. For, as St. John commented at the end of his Gospel,
“Jesus did many other signs . . . that are not written in
this book; but these are written so that . . . you may have life
. . .” (John 20:30–31.) These stories are never just
interesting historical vignettes. They have been recorded that we
“may have life”.
Caesar, today, often demands more from us that we can rightly give.
That’s why Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles recently said he
would advise his priests to disobey the law if humanitarian aid
to illegal immigrants were to be criminalized. Immigration reform
is a complex issue for which there is no clearly good answer. But
equally clearly, there are some bad ones. In this issue as in many
others, we must realize that such matters are never purely secular,
and we ought to pray that God show us His will. In the end, it is
all in God’s sphere.