God and Caesar
(Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21)
Introduction to Mass
Nobody had a stronger belief than Jesus in the absolute sovereignty of God - the belief that there's no part of the creation, no area of human life and activity, where God doesn't belong. But when the Pharisees try to trick Jesus with their question about paying taxes to the Roman Emperor his answer is to defend the principle that faith in God should never be co-opted by earthly power or used to legitimise any particular political system.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries....
The cunning element in the question about whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar was that if Jesus had said a straightforward "yes", the Pharisees and the supporters of Herod Antipas could have made him out to be a collaborator, somebody who was denying God's sovereignty over Israel - and Christ would then have been discredited among the ordinary people.
But if he had said outright that it was right to refuse to pay the Roman taxes he could have been reported to the occupying forces as a political troublemaker. And in the long run, of course, it was the false charge of challenging the authority of the Romans that the religious used to get Jesus executed.
So on a trivial level the answer Jesus gave them was just throwing the spotlight back on them: they believed in God's sovereignty, but at the same time they accepted the Roman occupation as a fact of life, at least for the time being, and took advantage of the Roman's relatively light-handed approach to religious minorities.
But on a level that isn't so trivial Jesus' answer indicates that there's a difference between God's Kingdom, on the one hand, where God's sovereignty sets the tone, and the sinful and corrupt world of Empires and Caesars on the other, founded on greed, violence and domination.
On top of that it's a warning - it seems to me - never to mix the two up, never to give to the earthly Caesars, who come and go, the worship and the authority which only belongs to God.
When we put it like that no Christian believer would take issue with it, but of course the way the principle has been applied in concrete circumstances has often been less clear-cut. Christianity has been around a long time now, and the Church's refusal to subordinate its mission to more worldly objectives has been more resolute at some times rather than at others.
In Germany in the nineteen-thirties, when the Nazi party was steadily rising to power, one of their strongest sources of support was the national Lutheran church. It was part of the Nazis' plan not only to gain an overall influence in politics, they had to control the still-powerful religious bodies as well. The Christian churches had to be neutralised as a source of potential opposition.
Even before Hitler came to power in 1933 his most successful appeals were made through the Lutheran churches, and Lutheran ministers were among the party's most popular speakers. There was a campaign to - s they called it - "revitalise" the Churches through an organisation called the German Christian Movement, which of course was just a tactic to manipulate church-goers into supporting the fascist cause. It was a way of giving to Caesar what belonged to God.
What was also true at that time - and it's worth pointing-out with all the criticism that Pope Pius XII has come in for about his relationship with the fascist dictatorships - is that the Catholic Church in Germany at the time by and large opposed the Nazis from the start, and that was especially true of the grassroots - ordinary parish congregations and the ordinary parish clergy.
Catholic priests were always being attacked in the Nazi papers for preaching against Hitler and what he stood for, and as the Party gained strength, Catholic organisations were dissolved and their property was confiscated.
At the same time it would only be right to draw attention to the opposition movements which existed in the Protestant churches as well. They formed some of the most courageous elements of the resistance inside Germany during the War and many of them were murdered for their efforts.
Moving on from that I think we would have to admit that, as far as the Catholic Church's relations with temporal power are concerned, there are plenty of bad historical examples on our side as well.
For centuries the Church in Latin America and South America was caught up in a marriage of convenience with the colonial and military regimes that were in power there. Individual governments protected the privileges and honours of the institutional Church and in exchange they got the blessing or seal of approval of the hierarchy. The official version of Catholicism was one that always preached the virtues of obedience and submission to lawful authority, while discouraging political dissent in the cause of justice. It was another way of using God to serve Caesar.
Having said all that, it would certainly be a misunderstanding of Jesusí teaching to use his saying about the separate realms of God and Caesar as a way of driving a wedge between the sacred and the secular, or between the human and the divine.
In the first reading this Sunday the prophet Isaiah tries to describe God's sovereignty, or dominion, in poetic language: "from the rising to the setting of the sun, apart from me, all is nothing".
For Isaiah, and for the whole Bible, really, there's no separation between God's life and human life, between God's history and our history. The whole outlook of the Bible is the opposite: that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, and that there's no area of human life where he doesn't belong.
Today in our part of the world that's a minority viewpoint, at least as a serious belief. The majority in our country dismiss classical Christian faith as a thing of the past, something primitive and superstitious. The propagandists of secularism argue patronisingly that modern men and women have "come of age" and outgrown religion, which has always been more of an obstacle than a help to human freedom and happiness.
And yet in this regard things have changed since the optimistic heyday of the 1960's. We've had a "world without God" for a couple of generations now, and it doesn't seem to be more liberated or happier or in any way more just at all.
From where we stand, at the beginning of a new century and millennium, a completely non-religious outlook is as much a minority opinion as traditional Christianity. The standard arguments of the atheists now have a fusty, nineteenth-century flavour to them. For many people old-fashioned unbelief doesn't give satisfying answers, and it looks as if it's come to a dead-end rather than leading everyone towards complete emancipation.
Our great challenge is to demonstrate the richness of genuine Christianity as opposed to the denials of atheism and the insubstantial notions that make up the various types of New Age "spirituality".
So those are some brief reflections on this well-known saying of Christ's. The main points, I think, are that on the one hand, God's sovereignty is absolute - Jesus and his opponents were agreed about that. But on the other hand there's a difference between God's way of ruling and the way that earthly rulers typically conduct themselves, and we falsify the message of salvation when we allow God to be used as a means of legitimising the corrupt structures of human and earthly power.