Is 45:1,4-6 • 1 Thes 1:1-5b • Mt 22:15-21
Most of the coins and currency used in the United States bear the words, “In God We Trust.” The idea for this arose during the Civil War when Salmon Chase was the Secretary of the Treasury. Although the Civil War was at full tilt, regardless of identifying with either North or South, almost everyone held in common their Christian faith in God. Secretary Chase thought that the motto would somehow become a source of hope.
Today it is very different. Rather than using God and faith as a source of hope and unity, many use God and faith to create division. There are constant lawsuits attacking the right to have displays of faith in public. There have even been attempts to have the motto “In God We Trust” removed from our money because it offends non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics.
There is the perennial fight to have the phrase “one nation under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. A homilist reflecting on today’s Gospel passage said about the Pledge, “I think [one nation under God] should be removed from our Pledge of Allegiance but not for any reason having to do with political correctness. I don’t worry about my faith-offending people as much as I worry about offending God. Lies offend God, and the statement, is simply untrue. Unfortunately our divisions are so deep I’m not sure we are one nation, and more, our behavior as a society makes it exceedingly dangerous to say we are “under God.”
Do we see faith in God as a gift that can unite as did Secretary Chase, or is our faith such that we really don’t completely live “under God”?
Matthew himself lived in a politically charged environment. The Jews had revolted against their occupiers, the Romans, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in the year A.D. 70. Writing more than 10 years later, Matthew had a community that also experienced severe divisions within society: between the Christian faith and other faiths, between following Christ and following an emperor who believed himself to be divine.
The tax was one denarius, equivalent to one day’s pay, which had to be paid in Roman coin. On the denarius of the region was the head of Emperor Tiberius and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” This was insulting to the Jews. There was only one divine King, and that was God.
The Pharisees were loath to pay the tax.
Amazingly, opposing Jesus with the Pharisees were their political and theological enemies, the Herodians. Herodians were supporters of Herod Antipas, who ruled from Galilee. The Romans put and kept Herod in power, so the Herodians supported Rome and its tax. Because they bitterly opposed each other, the Pharisees and the Herodians were strange bedfellows, but together they set a trap. If Jesus sided with the Pharisees, He would incur the wrath of the government, which would consider Him a leader of rebellion. If Jesus supported the tax and thus the Herodians, He would incur the wrath of the Jews, who regarded both the Roman coin and the tax as religiously offensive.
Instead of answering the question asked, Jesus changed the question into a theological question rather than a political one. He made a play on words that turned the trap around. The phrase, “You do not regard a person’s status,” comes from an idiom that does not translate well into English. More literally translated, the phrase says, “You do not regard the face of anyone.” It was the way to say a person was impartial. So, Jesus did not regard the face of anyone, yet He asked, “Whose face is on the coin?”
The coin bore the image of the emperor, so legally the coin belonged to the emperor. Jesus simply indicated that the coin was the emperor’s anyway — so it should be given back. But Jesus did not stop there. By implication, and believing that we are made in God’s image, we belong to God and should be giving ourselves to God. Jesus said that we must be as careful about our obligation to God as we are to our obligation to the government.
We pay our taxes. We obey the law. For the most part, we do our best to be good citizens. Are we as careful about our obligations to God as we are to the state? Are we as compliant with the laws of God? Would it be possible to restore truth to the phrase, “under God,” if we truly gave ourselves to God? Are we as good citizens of the kingdom of heaven as we are of our kingdoms on earth?
If we Americans want our lives to really be one “under God” and want our motto “In God We Trust” to be true, then we must each render to God what is His!
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.