God or Caesar?

A Reflection on today’s Gospel, Mark 12:13-17.  Originally published this morning at FaithND.

“Jesus said to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” And they were utterly amazed at him.”  Mk 12:17.

What belongs to God? What belongs to Caesar?

This is one of the most commonly misinterpreted passages in the Gospels. Let me be clear that this passage does not, in any way, mean that Jesus is telling us to pay taxes! In fact, the “tax” mentioned in the passage was nothing like the taxes we pay today. It was the imperial tax of a conquered people to their conquerors, and would have been extremely hated throughout Judea and Galilee.

In this light, it is easier to see why the politicians and religious leaders who confronted Jesus asked him the direct question to trick him, and why Jesus saw through the trap. If Jesus had said people should pay the tax, the leaders could have discredited him as a Roman sympathizer. If he said that they should not pay it, the leaders could have accused him of treason before the Roman governor.

So Jesus says neither. He takes a coin with Caesar’s head engraved upon it, and says the famous line, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” If Jesus lived in the 21st century, it would have made a great sound bite, debated on cable news channels for hours on end, because like any good politician, he refuses to answer a question that does not have a simple answer and he takes no followups!

Instead of an answer, Jesus gives us a challenge. Every coin printed by Caesar belongs to Caesar since it was created in the image of Caesar, just as every person belongs to God since we were created in the image of God. “If Caesar wants his money,” Jesus hints, “give him all of it, because God wants all of us, not just a part.”

If ever a Christian took this passage seriously, it was St. Francis of Assisi during his dramatic exit from his father’s care. Francis knew he must serve only God, so he stripped naked in the town square, and declared that his father may own all his clothes, but he belonged to God. Francis began his now-famous life of service naked and penniless, trusting only in God for food, clothing, and shelter.

Jesus’ aim is not to make us good citizens but to help us become faithful followers of God! We are God’s, and must give ourselves entirely and fully to God. Nothing less is acceptable.