Last week I got a call from some people in Taos, New Mexico, and they said that next Saturday afternoon, October 26th, they are going to have a vigil against the U.S. bombing of Iraq in downtown Taos at 2:00 p.m. with 1000 people, and then everyone is going to walk and vigil outside the home of Donald Rumsfield, the Secretary of War, and the head of the Pentagon. They had called all the priests in the area looking for someone who would represent the church to speak for peace, and they all said, “You need to call Fr. John, the new guy; he’ll speak against anything.” So I’m going to speak at the rally, and you’re all invited to come with me.
You may say, “Well Fr. John, what are you doing that for?” I’m just trying to follow Jesus like all of you, to give all my allegiance to God, to stand up publicly for the Gospel. Jesus was always speaking out for God and God’s kingdom of peace and our Gospel is a great example of it.
The first thing to notice is that the Pharisees are out to get Jesus. These are the religious leaders of Judaism, but they are also political leaders, since Israel is a theocratic state. They work with the Roman empire and can excommunicate, arrest, and even execute people in the name of God. They’re trying to trap Jesus to arrest him and kill him.
The question is: Why is Jesus always in trouble?
Jesus is always publicly challenging the unjust religious establishment and the Roman empire, and inviting everyone to live instead in God’s reign of love and nonviolence. He does not want people to follow the empire or its false spirituality
So the Pharisees go and get the Herodians. These are the followers of King Herod, the ruler at the time, the one who beheaded John the Baptist, and who will eventually sit in judgment over Jesus with Pilate. And they start flattering Jesus, and telling him how wonderful he is, but remember, their hearts are full of violence, resentment and murder.
So they ask him the famous question, trying to catch him breaking the law
“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Either way, they’ve got him.
If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the tax,” then he is supporting Caesar, and has been caught in the act of blasphemy, because Caesar claimed to be god and devout Jews could not worship Caesar.
If he says, “NO, don’t pay the tax,” then they will turn him over to Caesar and the Roman soldiers to be arrested and killed as a revolutionary, for telling people not to pay their taxes. In fact, in chapter 22 of Luke’s Gospel, this is actually one of the three charges brought against Jesus just before he is condemned to death. We are told he was telling people not to pay their taxes.
But Jesus starts questioning them. “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” he asks. “Show me the coin,” he says. The coin would have the head of Caesar carved on it. Caesar claimed to be god, so Jews were not allowed to carry these coins because then they would be saying that Caesar is God and that would be idolatry.
Notice that Jesus does not carry any coins. He has no money and does not practice idolatry. But they carry coins! They are the ones who are actually violating the law and practicing idolatry.
So Jesus exposes their hypocrisy. Then he asks them: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” And they say, Caesar. And he gives the famous line: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Now for the first three centuries, to follow Jesus meant you could not pay taxes, you could not be a soldier, and you could not fight in the Roman army. Most early Christians were martyred because they refused to fight and refused to say that Caesar was God.
Then around the year 313, the emperor said that from now on everyone in the empire was Christian, and overnight, Christians started paying taxes, becoming soldiers, and killing in war, and then they developed complicated theories, like the just war theory, to get around Jesus’ commandment, “love your enemies.”
For the last 1700 years, Christians have been paying taxes and fighting in wars, and using this verse to justify their actions.
But I think we’ve missed the whole point. Remember Jesus died as a victim of Caesar. He was executed on one of Caesar’s crosses. He certainly did not support Caesar which is why Caesar’s soldiers killed him.
Perhaps the best explanation of this Gospel passage that I ever heard was from Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which operates hundreds of houses of hospitality for the homeless and speaks out against war.
Dorothy Day says, “Once you give to God what belongs to God, there is nothing left for Caesar!”
I think that is what Jesus meant. Everything belongs to God. You belong to God; your family belongs to God; your life belongs to God; the world belongs to God; the whole human race belongs to God.
Everything belongs to God; nothing belongs to Caesar or the Roman empire, and we can follow the logic of the Gospel through and include America. Nothing belongs to Rome or America; everything belongs to God.
We are supposed to pledge allegiance first and foremost to God; to be citizens of the kingdom of God, to be servants and followers of Jesus, not Caesar or the United States. As I was telling the confirmation students last week, I think that means we can no longer support war, or be drafted, or kill. 1000s of Christians don’t even pay their incomes taxes today because they say that half of every dollar you pay in your taxes goes for bombs and weapons, which is against the reign of God.
The main thing in today’s Gospel is that Jesus wants us to give everything to God, to be completely focused on God and God’s reign, and all of you are doing this, so I just want to encourage you to stay focused on God, to take quiet time each day to be with God, to place yourselves at the service of God, and to keep doing what Jesus says, to love one another, forgive one another, not hurt anyone, to help one another, and like Jesus, to give every minute of your life from now on to God.