In the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord receives a nearly impossible question from the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Mt 22:17).
If Jesus says yes, then he is approving the Roman occupation of Israel. He will be saying yes to the debilitating poverty experienced by citizens of Israel. He will be saying yes to the desecration of the Temple taking place at the hands of Rome.
If Jesus says no, then he is openly declaring war on the Empire. His project then becomes reducible to the political, to the enactment of a new kingdom upon earth. The Roman authorities will turn their eye upon Jesus and his disciples, arresting him immediately.
The Word made flesh, the wisdom from on high finds another way. Looking at the image of Caesar upon the coin, he declares the coin not the property of God but the Empire: “... repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (22:21).
Our Lord’s wisdom, as it often does, should lead to additional questions. What is Caesar’s? What is God’s? How do we know the difference?
In the Book of Isaiah, we remember the calling of Cyrus — the king of Persia who freed Israel during the Babylonian Captivity in 539 B.C. Cyrus, the pagan king, was nonetheless the anointed one, chosen by the God who Cyrus does not know: “I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me” (Is 45:5).
The God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob is the central actor of history. Nothing belongs exclusively to the powers of the age. All things are to be rendered to God.
In this sense, one cannot interpret Jesus’ statement in Matthew as creating some radical gap between the “sacred” and the “profane.”
The Christian cannot go to Church on Sunday but defraud the poor on Monday.
The Christian cannot exchange the sign of peace at Mass during the week and do violence to the neighbor on Wednesday.
All things are to be rendered to God: “For all the gods of the nations are things of nought, but the LORD made the heavens” (Ps 96:5).
In Psalm 96, we have perhaps found a way to understand Jesus’ claim. The Christian can render to Caesar what is Caesar’s because what matters is that every aspect of creation finds its origins, not in the powers of this age, but in the creator of the world.
Christians can pay their taxes, because in the end, Caesar’s power is not ultimate. If we treat Caesar’s power too seriously, then we fall into this very same idolatry. We will worship the cult of the nation-state.
In Catholicism, not all authority is an idol. The nation-state can care for its citizens. Taxes can be used for the common good. It is the mission of Christians to make sure that such solidarity, such care for the common good becomes central to life in the world.
But a Christian can only do this if they follow the way of our Lord, giving every aspect of ourselves over to the Father.
For the Christian who does this, he may very well pay his taxes.
But he may also stand up against a nation-state that uses these tax dollars to end the lives of innocent children.
In rendering to God what is God’s, he may have a lot more to give than a coin with Caesar’s image.
The Christian may need to give up his very life.
That’s the ultimate rendering after all.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.