Daily Reflection
June 6th, 2006

Robert Heaney

John A. Creighton University Chair
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2 Peter 3:12-15a, 17-18
Psalm 90:2, 3-4, 10, 14 and 16
Mark 12:13-17

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.Mark 12:13–17

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 Caesar’s realm.

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.

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