A reflection by Fr. Dave Warren, SFM, on Matthew 22.15–21
Politics and religion are sensitive topics. We avoid them in polite conversation. Mix politics and religion together them and you have some volatile chemistry!
In this gospel reading, the Pharisees and the Herodians mix politics and religion. They set a trap for Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If Jesus answers yes, then the Pharisees will say that Jesus supports the right of the Romans to occupy the land where the God of Israel dwells. If Jesus answers no, then the Herodians, the puppet rulers of Palestine under the Romans, will denounce Jesus to the Romans for sedition.
The Pharisees and the Herodians pride themselves on having set the perfect trap. But Jesus outwits them: he answers “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus’ answer goes beyond the question which his enemies are asking. The Pharisees and the Herodians are asking about taxes. Jesus’ answer addresses a deeper issue. But what is he saying?
First of all, Jesus is not saying that there are two compartments, one for God, and one for Caesar. Nor is he advocating the separation of religion and politics. The separation of religion and politics is a thoroughly modern and a thoroughly Western issue. For Jesus and for his contemporaries, God was involved in every aspect of life and that included politics. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.” Nor is Jesus advocating the separation of Church and State.
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God? As the Pharisees and the Herodians should have known, what belongs to God is our primary allegiance.
The Pharisees and Herodians question Jesus. Then Jesus questions them – and us. Is our first loyalty to Caesar or is our first loyalty to God?