Giving to God What Is God's

Lectio Divina: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

Roman Rite – XXIX Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – October 19, 2014. 

Is 45, 1.4-6; Ps 96; 1 Theses 1, 1-5b; Mt 22, 15 to 21 

Ambrosian Rite – Feast of the Lord 

Bar 3.24 to 38, or Rev 1:10; 21.2-5; Ps 86; 2 Tim 2, 19-22; Mt 21.10 to 17 

1) Caesar and God. 

Today’s Gospel presents Christ’s famous sentence: «Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to GodThis phrase is repeated in context and out of context when talking about the relationship between Christianity, the institutions, and political power. 

In order to provide an evangelic meditation not limited to a short lesson on Church-State relations, I think it important to explain the context in which this phrase is uttered by Jesus. 

The Pharisees and the Herodians want to trap Jesus even if they have different views of Israel’s Roman occupation at the time of the Jesus’ earthly life. When a prophet’s words become uncomfortable for the status quo to hear, he must be proven to be in error, it must be shown that he contradicts himself. The question laid out to Him is: «Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? 

If, in answering the question about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Rome, Jesus had said “no”, the Jews would have denounced him to the Romans as Rome’s enemy and a rebel. If he had answered “yes”, they would have had a good excuse in front of everyone to denounce him as a traitor of his own people. 

Jesus does not fall into the trap, he instead answers in a way unforeseen by the Pharisees and the Herodians who had posed an ambiguous question. He takes another route by inviting his interlocutors to look at the coin that pays the census tax. They show the coin with the image of Tiberius Caesar. At that point, He first asks whether the image is Caesar’s, then, He makes the statement that I‘ve quoted at the beginning. 

The teachings to be taken away here are, usually and quite correctly, the confirmation of the distinction between Church and State, the assertion that it is essential to be able to distinguish between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and that in any situation the primacy of all reality is always connected with God. 

The Christian is one who is called to live as a citizen in his own country, respecting the laws of the State. He pays taxes, participates in meetings, takes part in political life, but knows that every situation can and must always be related back to God. 

2) God and his image. 

«Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” These words are usually interpreted in the context of the distinction between Church and State. It is certainly legitimate to do so. However, this phrase pushes us farther and recalls a deeper truth about man. If the coin is imprinted with the image of Caesar, we are «imprinted” with the image of God, or rather, we are made in the image and likeness of God. 

To Jesus’ question about whose is the portrait on the coin and what is the title that identifies the image, the Jews answer «Caesar’s.» Then Jesus replies, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to GodThe answer confuses the listeners. In any case, the answer makes us ask ourselves what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. Jesus’ answer makes clear what belongs to Caesar: only that coin from the mint of Rome on which the «image» of the emperor is engraved. This, therefore, must be returned to the owner. The Gospel then goes further and says to give to God what is God’s. But what is God’s? The term «image» used by Jesus for the coin, brings us back to the biblical phrase placed at the very beginning of the Bible: «God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him» (Gn 1: 27). This means that today, as in the days of Jesus’ earthly life, what began with the creation of man remains true. At the beginning of the history of the world, Adam and Eve are the result of an act of God’s love, they are made in His image and likeness, and their lives and their relationship with the Creator coincided. 

Already in the fourth century, an anonymous author wrote: «The image of God is not impressed on gold, but on the human race. Caesar’s coin is gold, God’s coin is humanity…. Therefore give your riches to Caesar but keep for God the unique innocence of your conscience, where God is contemplated…. Caesar, in fact, asked that his image be on every coin, but God chose man, whom he created to reflect his glory» (Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 42). St. Augustine has used this reference several times in his homilies: «If Caesar claims his image imprinted on the coin – he says – would not God require from man the divine image sculpted in him?» (See Exp. on the Psalms, Psalm 94: 2). And again: » In like manner as Caesar exacts from you the impression of his image, so also does God: that as the tribute money is rendered to him, so should the soul to God, illumined and stamped with the light of His countenance…. Christ in fact, dwells in the inner man (Exp. on the Psalms, Psalm 4,8) 

Jesus’ indication therefore, cannot be reduced as applicable only to the political sphere. The Church’s task in this case is not limited to reminding men of the proper distinction between Caesar’s sphere of authority and God’s, between the political and the religious sphere. The task of the Church, which continues the mission of Jesus, is essentially to speak of God and to remember the sovereignty of the Father, reminding everyone, especially Christians who have lost their identity, the right of God on what belongs to Him, namely our life that in Him becomes holy and true. Our truth, like that of all human beings, is that we are first and foremost children of God. We belong to God. This is the foundation of freedom and human dignity, which must be defended, maintained and returned to each and every man and woman. It is a question of bringing out evermore clearly that, God’s image which has been shaped, impressed, in the depths of every human being and that makes him holy. 

In fact, there is a «holiness» in every human person which is not of his or her own merit, but that is a gift because each of us is created in God’s image. St. Irenaeus wrote that the Word and the Spirit are the two hands with which man was formed at the beginning and with which he is still shaped today in the image of God. 

Always, but especially at the beginning of this life of holiness, every believer has no other duty but the docility to the Spirit’s action. But how can we recognize the Holy Spirit’s action and make room for it in our lives? By keeping alive in us the holy desire for God and living perseverance through our asking for Christ in every moment of our lives. Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity said: «How serious is every moment! It is paid in the Blood of Christ! «Every moment costs God because the price of time is God: we receive Him in every instant, we must receive Him. In every moment, unfortunately, we can also choose to close ourselves to Him, reject Him. We refuse Him if we do not surrender ourselves to this grace. We reject Him and we close ourselves to Him if we are not obedient to Him, if we, his disciples, do not listen or do not welcome Him in us. 

As disciples of Jesus we must work so that in every man shines the icon (image) of God that is imprinted in our heart. 

Not only must we worship God who is present in our soul and realize that we are the living temple of God. We must also realize that all that we have received from Him must be continuously moved by Him, used by Him and operated by Him. We must not only to be the temple of God but also be the instrument of His actions, because God does not dwell in us statically and still. He does no
t dwell in us solely because we adore Him. He dwells in us in order for Him to act through us and especially to transform us and make us like Him, of whom we are the image. 

We are invited to ask through prayer and action to be made according to the image of the Son of God. Often this image is marred, hurt, humiliated, and crushed due to our misconduct or by other people’s work. Marring ourselves or others, we mar the image of God that is within us, we disfigure the image that the «two creative hands» of God have made . Today, Jesus exhorts us to «give back» to God what belongs to Him: everything and everyone, ourselves together with all of humanity and creation. 

We must not forget that, compared to all other creatures, man is the only one that God has willed for himself (Gaudium et Spes, 12; Catechism of the Catholic Church 356). He or she is not a thing among things, but a being capable of self-awareness and free decision. He or she is a person capable of a relationship with God and with other people. This is the image-likeness to God: we are not a thing incorporated in the laws of the universe (think of the evolution leading to the presence of humans that scientists say happened about 3 billion years ago), but we have consciousness, freedom and we can interpret our being in the world by giving it a meaning1. 

Man thus appears as the culmination of creation, the point at which the creation becomes conscious and capable of free response to God and able to have relationships2. 

An Order of people living this spousal communion with God and fellowship with men is that of Consecrated Virgins in the world. 

Through their dedication, these women testify to the Church and to the world that the human being is a reflection of God and is called to be, in the visible world, a spokesman for the glory of God and a word of his Glory. 

The virgins show and make public the perfect virginity of their own Mother, the Church, and the sanctity of her intimate union with Christ. These women also offer a wonderful sign of the flourishing holiness and of the spiritual fruitfulness typical of the Church. In this regard, the expressions of St. Cyprian are wonderful: «Virginity is the flower of the ecclesiastical seed, the grace and ornament of spiritual endowment, a joyous disposition, the wholesome and uncorrupted work of praise and honor, God’s image answering to the holiness of the Lord, the more illustrious portion of Christ’s flock. The glorious fruitfulness of Mother Church rejoices by their means, and in them abundantly flourishes; and in proportion as a copious virginity is added to her number, so much the more it increases the joy of the Mother.«(St.Cyprian, De habitu virginum, 3: PL 4, 443). 

To this are wisely inspired the expressions of the Celebrant in the rite of the consecration of the Virgins and the prayers to the Lord:” So that there may be more sublime souls that, disdaining the pleasures of the flesh in marriage, seek the hidden meaning and, instead of imitating what is done in marriage, love what in it is symbolized. «(Roman Pontifical Consecration of Virgins). 

1 In the second narration of the creation (Gen 2,4a-25) man ( adam) is taken out from dust (adamah) in which God blows his breath of life(neshamah). What makes a difference between us and the other creatures is the spirit, the ability to be free and to give a meaning to the fact that we are something. 

2 To be able to have relationships is not an appendix to human nature but is the fullest expression of being a person. 

Patristic Reading 

St. John Chrysostom (344 – 407) 

Homily LXX. Matthew Chapter 22, Verse 15 

“Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle Him in His talk.” 

Then. When? When most of all they ought to have been moved to compunction, when they should have been amazed at His love to man, when they should have feared the things to come, when from the past they ought to have believed touching the future also. For indeed the things that had been said cried aloud in actual fulfillment I mean, that publicans and harlots believed, and prophets and righteous men were slain, and from these things they ought not to have gainsaid touching their own destruction, but even to believe and to be sobered. 

But nevertheless not even so do their wicked acts cease, but travail and proceed further. And forasmuch as they could not lay hands. on Him (for they feared the multitude), they took another way with the intention of bringing Him into danger, and making Him guilty of crimes against the state. 

For “they sent out unto Him their disciples with the Herodians saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto C’sar or not?1 

For they were now tributaries, their state having passed under the rule of the Romans. Forasmuch then as they saw that Theudas and Judas2 with their companies for this cause were put to death, as having prepared for a revolt, they were minded to bring Him too by these words into such a suspicion. Therefore they sent both their own disciples, and Herod’s soldiers, digging, as they thought, a precipice on either side, and in every direction setting the snare, so that, whatever He should say, they might lay hold of it; and if He should answer in favor of the Herodians, themselves might find fault with Him, but if in their favor, the others should accuse Him. And yet He had given the didrachmas,3 but they knew not that. 

And in either way indeed they expected to lay hold of Him; but they desired rather that He should say something against the Herodians. Wherefore they send their disciples also to urge. Him thereto by their presence, that they might deliver Him to the governor as an usurper. For this Luke also intimates and shows, by saying, that they asked also in the presence of the multitude, so that the testimony should be the stronger. 

But the result was altogether opposite; for in a larger body of spectators they afforded the demonstration of their folly. 

And see their flattery, and their hidden craft. “We know,” their words are, “that Thou art true.” How said ye then, “He is a deceiver,” and “deceiveth the people,” and “hath a devil,” and “is not of God?”4 how a little while before did ye devise to slay Him? 

But they are at everything, whatsoever their craft against Him may suggest. For since, when a little before they had said in self will, “By what authority doest Thou these things?”5 they did not meet with an answer to the question, they look to puff Him up by their flattery, and to persuade Him to say something against the established laws, and opposed to the prevailing government. 

Wherefore also they testify the truth unto Him, confessing what was really so, nevertheless, not with an upright mind, nor willingly; and add thereto, saying, “Thou carest not for any man.” See how plainly they are desiring to urge Him to these sayings, that would make Him both offend Herod, and incur the suspicion of being an usurper, as standing up against the laws, so that they might punish Him, as a mover of sedition, and an usurper. For in saying, “Thou carest not for any man,” and, “Thou regardest not the person of man,” they were hinting at Herod and Caesar, “Tell us therefore, what thinkest Thou?” Now ye honor Him, and esteem Him a Teacher, having despised and insulted Him oftentimes, when He was discoursing of the things that concern your salvation.Whence also they are become confederates. 

And see their craftiness. They say not, Tell us what is good, what is expedient, what is lawful? but, “What thinkest Thou?” So much did they look to this one object, to betray Him, and to set Him at enmity with the
rulers. And Mark declaring this, and more plainly discovering their self-will, and their murderous disposition, affirms them to have said, “Shall we give C’sar tribute, or shall we not give?”6 So that they were breathing anger, and travailing with a plot against Him, yet they feigned respect. 

What then saith He? “Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?” Seest thou how He talks with them with more than usual severity? For since their wickedness was now complete and manifest, He cuts the deeper, first confounding and silencing them, by publishing their secret thoughts, and making it manifest to all with what kind of intent they are coming unto Him. 

And these things He did, repulsing their wickedness, so that they might not suffer hurt in attempting the same things again. And yet their words were full of much respect, for they both called Him Master, and bore witness to His truth, and that He was no respecter of persons; but being God, He was deceived by none of these things. Wherefore they also ought to have conjectured, that the rebuke was not the result of conjecture, but a sign of His knowing their secret thoughts. 

2. He stopped not, however, at the rebuke, although it was enough merely to have convicted them of their purpose, and to have put them to shame for their wickedness; but He stoppetn not at this, but in another way closes their mouths; for, “Shew me,” saith He, “the tribute money.” And when they had shown it, as He ever doth, by their tongue He brings out the decision, and causes them to decide, that it is lawful; which was a clear and plain victory. So that. when He asks, not from ignorance doth He ask, but because it is His will to cause them to be bound by their own answers. For when, on being asked, “Whose is the image?” they said, “C’sar’s;” He saith, “Render unto C’sar the things that are C’sar’s.”7 For this is not to give but to render, and this He shows both by the image, and by the superscription. 

Then that they might not say, Thou art subjecting us to men, He added, “And unto God the things that are God’s.” For it is possible both to fulfill to men their claims and to give unto God the things that are due to God from us. Wherefore Paul also saith, “Render unto all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear.”8 

But thou, when thou hearest, “Render unto C’sar the things which are C’sar’s,» know that He is speaking only of those things, which are no detriment to godliness; since if it be any such thing as this, such a thing is no longer C’sar’s tribute, but the devil’s. 

When they heard these things, their mouths were stopped, and they “marvelled” at His wisdom. Ought they not then to have believed, ought they not to have been amazed. For indeed, He gave them proof of His Godhead, by revealing the secrets of their hearts, and with gentleness did He silence them. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation