Just 40 years ago this week, the then Shah of Iran celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire with a visit to the tomb of King Cyrus near Persepolis. That’s the same Cyrus to whom the prophet refers, in this Sunday’s 1st reading [Isaiah 45:1, 4-6], as the Lord’s anointed, whose right hand the Lord grasps. In the ancient world, apparently one way a god conferred royal authority on a king was by grasping his hand. Thus, Cyrus was seen as receiving royal legitimacy from the God of Israel, just like David, the preeminent model of an anointed king in Israel’s history. What’s so striking about this, of course is that Cyrus was a Persian – a pagan – and yet reigned apparently as God’s anointed. Some 5½ centuries later, pagan rule was again a reality in Israel. Hence the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians in this Sunday’s Gospel [Matthew 22:15-21]: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
My high school math teacher was especially fond of this story. He used to use it to illustrate the attempt to create a “perfect dichotomy” – a case in which there are exactly two (and only two) mutually exclusive possibilities. The motivation behind the question is evident from the fact that this was an ad hoc alliance between the Pharisees, who generally tied to keep maximum distance from the ruling Romans, and the Herodians, who were, in effect, collaborators with the Romans. The Gospel tells us they were trying to entrap Jesus in speech – trying to make him come down on one side or the other and get himself in trouble, whichever way he answered.
Like political candidates today, who are experts in how not to answer the question they are being asked and instead answer the one they want to answer, Jesus cleverly circumvented the either/or of this supposedly perfect dichotomy. It was Jesus’ cleverness in doing this that so impressed my math teacher, as it has impressed people for centuries every since.
Well, as a witty way out of a trap, Jesus’ response was superb. But if instead we consider the question itself as an honest dilemma deserving an honest answer, then what do we make of Jesus’ clever retort, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”?
Modern western liberal democratic societies tend to take the individual as the starting point for discussion. The issue then becomes the basis for and the extent of one’s obligations to society. The idea that paying taxes to support the common good, for example, (or compulsory military service such as we used to have, to take another example) are essentially infringements upon one’s individual rights reflects this individualistic modern starting point. Reconciling individual freedom with social and political obligations was not the central issue, however, in this encounter between Jesus and his opponents - nor would it probably have made much sense as a way of framing the issue, either to their contemporaries or to most people in most societies. The underlying issue was rather the relationship between two comprehensive (and potentially competing) sets of loyalties – loyalties to two comprehensive (and potentially competing) communities.
Whatever ambivalence the Pharisees may have felt about the Roman Empire, the early Christians by and large appreciated the benefits of Roman rule. More than once, the New testament instructed them to obey the law and honor the Emperor, insisting that one’s religious obligations to God, while absolute in themselves, do not cancel out one’s membership in civil society and one’s consequent obligations to its defender, the State [Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17].
Within the Church, Christians were, of course, expected to resolve conflicts peacefully among themselves, not taking their disputes to secular courts, for example. But that didn’t mean that the State should not use its courts, its police, its army, as needed to provide peace, security, and some reasonable measure of justice for society as a whole.
Of course, everything got much more complicated when all of a sudden (and somewhat unexpectedly) the Emperor became a Christian and Christians began to exercise serious political power at all levels of society. Whether as public officials or as ordinary citizens, who vote, pay taxes, and affect public policy in any number of ways, we enjoy the peace, security, and justice that civil society makes possible, from which derive corresponding obligations. It’s interesting in this regard that the Catechism  says that “the love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude.” After all, Jesus did say “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Civilization doesn’t come free. Nor does our faith allow us any excuse to act as if it did.
As for “what belongs to God,” the long list of the Church’s martyrs testifies to God’s uncompromisingly absolute claim on our consciences – in the face of any and all competing secular claims. There exists a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. Some things are simply wrong – always and everywhere. No society, whether ancient or modern, whether dictatorial or democratic, whether rigidly united or wildly pluralistic, no society can make something right which is intrinsically wrong. And no one, who takes his or her citizenship in God’s kingdom seriously, may collaborate in promoting as right what is in fact intrinsically wrong.
Within what legitimately “belongs to Caesar,” however, within civil society’s legitimate sphere of action and responsibility, it is more often than not a matter of trying to approximate what will work best in specific circumstances. The ordinary dynamics of politics and economics have not been repealed by the Gospel, which does not provide us with a formula for which policies will produce a more prosperous economy or a more stable and secure international balance of power. What the Gospel does give us is a new outlook on life, within which we may see some of those things in a new way. When it comes to practical questions of economic policy or foreign policy, for example, we have to figure these things out, as best we can whether as citizens or as statesmen or both, by using the best human knowledge we have – always aware that, because we are human and our human wisdom is limited, we may make mistakes, and also that, when it comes to making such practical policy judgments, reasonable, morally sincere people, applying the same general principles, may well come to different but comparably compelling conclusions.
Jesus first asked his questioners to show him the coin. Then, taking into account all that the coin signified, Jesus challenged his hearers – challenges us - to live as loyal and committed citizens in the world and simultaneously as faithful citizens in the kingdom of God, our dual citizenship shaped by the interconnected demands of a faith that is inevitably public and never something purely private.