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The Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity
by R.D. Crouse
from COMMON PRAYER, Volume Six: Parochial Homilies for the Eucharist 
Based on the Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer, 1962, Canada. 
St. Peter Publications Inc. Charlottetown, PEI, Canada.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
“Render unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22.21)

In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus seems to distinguish between what we owe to Caesar and what we owe to God, between our civic obligations, on the one hand, and our religious duties, on the other. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  If we owe some things to Caesar and some things to God, it is certainly important for us to be aware of the distinction; and today’s Gospel would appear to shed some light upon it. Thus it is that our Canadian Prayer Book has appointed this same Gospel lesson also for Dominion Day: it should tell us some-thing about civic duties.

But is that really what the Gospel lesson is about? As with so many passages of Scripture, the interpretation is far from simple or obvious; and one must begin with some basic knowledge of the historical context of the story.

The episode begins with a surprising and surely most unholy alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians: “They plotted together how they might entangle Jesus in his talk.” Now Pharisees and Herodians make very strange bedfellows. The Herodians were the supporters of the ruling house of Herod, the half-native dynasty of collaborationist governors, by whose administration the Roman Empire ruled the conquered land. The Pharisees, on the contrary, were Jewish patriots, deeply concerned to maintain very strictly the traditions of the ancient law. They were utterly horrified by the pagan customs which the Herods were introducing: the amphitheaters, the temples, the baths, the heathen games, and soon. The Herodians, for their part, were thoroughly contemptuous of the puritanism of the Pharisees and the opposition between the two parties was deep and bitter. One might almost say that the Pharisees were separatists, while the Herodians were federalists!

Still, there was one thing about which Pharisees and Herodians could agree: Jesus must be stopped. To the Pharisees, he was a scandal who mixed socially with tax-collectors and sinners, broke the sabbath, and, in general, encouraged people to take lightly the manifold rules so dear to the Pharisee’s heart. And he was beginning to have a large following. To the Herodians, he was a disturber of the peace. There had been trouble with John the Baptist, and they fore-saw more trouble with Jesus. The Herodians knew perfectly well that the Romans would tolerate their government only so long as they could keep things quiet in Palestine.

So, because these two parties had a common interest in making an end of Jesus, they plotted together on how to discredit him. They came up with a very clever scheme: they would go to him together. First, they would flatter him as a fearless and straightforward preacher of truth: “Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man.” And then, they would ask him a question about paying taxes to Caesar: “Tell us therefore, what thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”

It was a very clever question. If Jesus approved of the tax, he would lose the support of all patriotic Jews, especially of the common people, who hated the foreign overlords; while if he disapproved of it, he would be revealed as a dangerous revolutionary against the established government. If he refused to answer, he would lose everyone’s respect. It was hard to see how he could escape. He had often slipped through their fingers before, but this time, surely they had him!

It was a very clever plot, but not quite clever enough. Jesus saw through it at once. Perceiving their wickedness, he said, “Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money.” Now the tribute had to be paid in Roman coinage, stamped with the image of the Emperor, and bearing the blasphemous inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus.” As a symbol of foreign dominion, that coinage was generally hated. It could not be used, for instance, in the Temple at Jerusalem, but had to be exchanged outside. “Show me the tribute money.” “Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them. Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” — give him back his coinage —“and unto God the things that are God’s.” “When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.” One may imagine that their report was not very cheerfully received at head-quarters. Jesus’ answer was an extremely astute and highly ironical response to a malicious plot. It was by no means a recommendation that we should divide our allegiance between Caesar and God, because, in fact, all things are God’s, especially we ourselves who are stamped with God’s image: “Render unto God the things which are God’s.”

Thus, the basic message of today’s Gospel is that we belong to God, and must return ourselves to him. There can be no question of a divided allegiance: Caesar is not a God, whatever his pretensions. We do distinguish, of course, between Church and state, between sacred and secular, as neither ancient Jews nor ancient Romans did; but both are for God’s sake. As St. Paul says in today’s Epistle, “our conversation” — our true life — “is in heaven.” But as he also states elsewhere, ministers of state are ministers of God, too, charged with the good order and virtuous conduct of temporal affairs, an important matter so far as our eternal salvation is concerned.

For us, Church and state are distinct; and, indeed, it is dangerous to confuse the two, as the contemporary Church seems sometimes in danger of doing. They are distinct, and each has its function in the one divine ordering of things.

But our spiritual life is one, expressing itself in both civic and religious occupations. One cannot really be a Christian on Sunday and a pagan on Monday, and it’s spiritually disastrous to attempt that split. In every activity, whether sacred or secular, it is our duty to render to God our whole selves, the image which is his. Our offices and duties are many, but our allegiance is one: “Render unto God the things which are God’s.”