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Spirituality: Caesar games
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Nov. 14, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
Browsing through the Catechism of the Catholic Church the other day I noticed that a new item had been added to the list of possible sins since the days of my seminary moral theology classes: Not paying for Social Security benefits.
I wonder how many people make a note of this when they encounter the scene in the Gospel in which Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and the lackeys of King Herod. These culprits gang up on Jesus in an attempt to discredit him. Kill off the messenger (or at least maim him), they think, and then they won’t have to face the truth he speaks. With tongue pressed against cynical cheek they inquire, “Oh wonderful master and intelligent teacher, friend of all and respecter of persons [butter, butter], is it lawful to pay the census tax or not?”
Can we not see the smirk on their faces. They think they have caught Jesus in their cleverly constructed trap. If he says, “No, don’t pay the tax,” then they can rat him out to the Romans, who had zero tolerance for anyone who opposed the will of Caesar. Mission accomplished. One dead pest.
On the other hand, if Jesus were to say, “Yes, pay the tax,” then they could accuse him of promoting idolatry. The tax had to be paid in Roman coinage, which bore the image of Caesar – who claimed to be divine. The Jews of Jesus’ day hated the Romans and their oppressive ways – even making them touch those idolatrous coins. A “Yes” from the lips of Jesus would seal his fate and people would have to abandon him as a false prophet. A friend of Caesar is no friend of theirs. Jesus had to make a choice.
The Pharisees knew they had to pay the census tax or die – and so they paid it. Sometimes life’s demands just don’t match our likes and values. We are trapped by circumstances.
And so they try to trap Jesus, not to find a solution to a moral dilemma but perhaps more to condone their own behavior. They did not want an honest answer. They wanted to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. With the right answer from the Master they could remain comfortable with the playing of games with the One who claimed sovereignty over all facets of their lives.
Jesus’ now-famous response cut to the heart of the matter: “Give to Caesar what belongs to belongs to Caesar. [I can imagine that Jesus made a pregnant pause at this moment for effect] ... but give to God what belongs to God.”
Those bums knew full well that the potentates of all ilk came and went in the course of their long history as God’s chosen people. Their pretence of the power always was short-lived by comparison to God’s everlasting reign, even if for the while they were oppressed and forced to act contrary to their will and moral conviction.
Jesus does not condone the evil of the powerful but places it in perspective. Potentates can demand and control, but they have no claim on the allegiance of the heart which will manifest itself properly if given a context of genuine freedom. “Let Caesar have his damnable coin,” Jesus seems to be saying. The more important matter is that the faithful keep pressing themselves to do all they can do to manifest the priority of God in their lives.
Such a challenge always remains open-ended and cannot be reduced to choosing sides. God’s demand on the believer’s heart always presses for God-centered action.
Matter settled. Jesus picks the side of us believers.
Or so we think....
This encounter with Jesus might well direct us toward an honest examination of our own behavior. Few people experience a crisis of conscience over paying Social Security benefits to the government or not. Like death, we cannot avoid the payment of taxes – and besides, just taxation also contributes to the common good. Such being the case, we are tempted to render this encounter with Jesus to the dusty library shelves of history. A hundred points to Jesus. Zero for the Pharisees and Herod’s flunkies.
But is it possible that we can play the same game, trying to trap for God for our benefit? How about these examples for teasers:
• What is the person doing who argues with God: “Can I take (another) weekend ski trip with my family or do you want me to go to Mass instead? After all, you value family life, don’t you?”
• What is the busy person saying who contests with God: “Do you want to get all
these things done, or do you want me to drop them and spend the time in prayer? After all, you
depend on me to do your work, don’t you?”
• What goes on the mind of the person who argues with God: “Do you want me to spend my money on my many (legitimate) needs, or do you want me to tithe as an expression of my trust in you? After all, you don’t need money; You’re God – and besides, your Church is all messed up.”
• What is the person truly gaining when they argue, “Do I have to put up with the sinfulness and limitations of ‘organized religion’ or do you want me to believe in you? Remember, you know my heart and its best intentions.”
• And what is the man, woman or child demonstrating when the protest is made, “Why can’t I wear running shorts and beach flip-flops to Mass? After all, I am here, aren’t I? You don’t care what clothes I have on.”
In all of these examples there is a pharisaical sense of “Gotcha!” — a sense of forcing God to agree with us, relieving us from the more important issue of making God the priority of our lives. If we can get God to side with our self-centered issues, then we are freed from the responsibility of making down-to-earth decisions that reflect his sovereignty.
In all these cases – and the many more we could identify if we took careful stock of our lives –Jesus would respond with the same classical answer, changing only a word here or there to make the same point: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar [a pause so we’d get the point] but to God what belongs to God.”
No games with God allowed here. Everything we do must manifest that God is God and Caesar is only Caesar.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics
Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.)
(Download an order form in pdf format to
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