46 years ago, in October 1971, the Shah of Iran celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire with a visit to the tomb of King Cyrus near Persepolis - the same Cyrus to whom the prophet refers, in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 45:1, 4-6], as the Lord’s anointed, whose right hand the Lord grasps. In the ancient world, one way a god conferred royal authority on a king was by grasping his hand. Thus, Cyrus was seen as receiving royal legitimacy from the God of Israel, just like David, the preeminent model of an anointed king in Israel’s history. What’s so striking about this, of course is that Cyrus was a Persian – a pagan – and yet reigned apparently as God’s anointed. Some 5½ centuries later, pagan rule was again a reality in Israel. Hence the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
My high school math teacher used to cite this story [Matthew 22:15-21] to illustrate an attempt at what he called a “perfect dichotomy,” where there are two (and only two) mutually exclusive solutions. The motivation behind the question is evident. The Gospel tells us they were trying to entrap Jesus in speech – trying to make him come down on one side or the other and get himself in trouble, whichever way he answered.
Like our political candidates today, who are experts in how not to answer the question they are being asked and instead answer the one they want to answer – what is sometimes called “pivoting” - Jesus cleverly circumvented the either/or of this supposedly perfect dichotomy.
Indeed, as a witty way out of a trap, Jesus’ response was superb. But what does it tell us today? If we consider the question itself as an honest dilemma deserving an honest answer, then what do we make of Jesus’ clever retort, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”?
Unlike ancient and traditional societies, which start from the community as their point of reference, modern western liberal democratic thinking tends to take the individual as its starting point. The issue then becomes the basis and the extent of one’s obligations to society. (The challenge of justifying paying taxes to support the common good, for example, or compulsory military service, to take another obvious example, the idea that such activities are somehow infringements upon one’s individual rights, reflects this strange, modern, individualistic way of thinking.) Such a way of thinking would, of course, have been completely alien to Jesus and his contemporaries. Reconciling individual freedom with social and political obligations was not the issue in this encounter, nor would it have made much sense as a way of framing the issue to most people in most societies. Rather, the underlying issue raised by the question - and explicitly referred to in Jesus’ answer - was the relationship between two comprehensive (and potentially competing) loyalties – loyalties to two comprehensive (and potentially competing) communities.
Whatever ambivalence the Pharisees may have felt about the Roman Empire, the early Christians by and large appreciated the benefits of Roman rule. More than once, the New Testament instructed them to obey the law, pay their taxes, and honor the Emperor, insisting that one’s religious obligations to God, while absolute in themselves, do not cancel out one’s membership in civil society and one’s consequent obligations to its defender, the State.
Within the Church, Christians were, of course, expected to resolve conflicts peacefully among themselves, not taking their disputes to secular courts, for example. But that didn’t mean that the State should not use its courts, its police, its army - as needed to provide peace, security, and some measure of justice for society as a whole.
Of course, everything got much more complicated when all of a sudden (and rather unexpectedly) the Emperor became a Christian and Christians began to exercise serious political power at all levels of society. Whether as public officials or as ordinary citizens, who vote, pay taxes, and affect public policy in any number of ways, we enjoy the peace, security, and justice that civil society makes possible, from which derive corresponding obligations. It’s interesting in this regard that the Catechism  says that “the love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude.” Civilization doesn’t come free. Nor does our faith allow us any excuse to act as if it did.
As for “what belongs to God,” the long list of the Church’s martyrs testifies to God’s uncompromisingly absolute claim on our consciences – in the face of any and all competing secular claims. There exists a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. No society, whether ancient or modern, whether dictatorial or democratic, whether rigidly united or wildly pluralistic, no society can make something right which is intrinsically wrong.
Within what legitimately “belongs to Caesar,” however, within civil society’s legitimate sphere of action and responsibility, it is more often than not a matter of trying to approximate what will work best in specific circumstances. The ordinary dynamics of politics and economics have not been repealed by the Gospel, which does not tell us which policies will produce a more prosperous and equitable economy or a more stable and secure international balance of power. The Gospel gives us a distinctive perspective, from which certain specific principles do follow. When it comes to practical questions of policy, however, we often have to figure these things out, as best we can as citizens or as statesmen, using the best knowledge we have, processed through discussion and debate – not just anger and outrage, which we tend nowadays to substitute both for knowledge and for discussion and debate. Instead, we need knowledge from history, from observation, from professional experts in the field, and from our own experience – always aware that, because our human wisdom is limited, we may make mistakes, and also that, when it comes to making such practical policy judgments, reasonable, morally sincere people, applying the same set of principles, may come to different but comparably compelling conclusions.
Jesus first asked his questioners to show him the coin. Then, taking into account all that the coin signified, Jesus challenged his hearers – challenges us - to live as loyal and committed citizens in the world and simultaneously as faithful citizens in the kingdom of God, our dual citizenship shaped by the interconnected demands of a faith that is inevitably public and never something purely private, that is always less about ourselves and more about our connections with others both in the kingdom of God and in our interconnected and overlapping earthly communities.
Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 22, 2017.