Bring the truths of God's Kingdom into our dealings with earthly authority
Oh, how Jesus must have annoyed the Pharisees! Time after time, this common man from a nothing town in Galilee would get people all excited with His preaching (who’s he to show us up?). Whatever “it” was, He had it, and the people were attracted to the truth that He was speaking. “This must not be tolerated, we must think of a way to expose and/or trap Him”, they must have said. Time and time again, they thought they were clever enough to do just that, and so they approach the Lord with a simple question: Should Jews pay Caesar’s tax or not? If He said “yes,” then they would paint Him as a traitor to His people. If He said “no,” then perhaps they could rat Him out to the authorities and have them take care of Him. Win-win.
They were not expecting a third option. Jesus told them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. With this answer, Jesus reveals a new outlook, one which respected the role of both Caesar (civil authorities of this world) and the things of God. He did not pick sides or pit one against another, but rather revealed that both sides have claims on us that need to be respected, but always in their proper order.
It may not always look like it, but Christians live in two realms at the same time. By our baptism, we are brought into the Body of Christ and into the Kingdom of God, and this Kingdom exists here and now. It is hard to comprehend that sometimes, with all the evil lurking in the world, but it is nonetheless true. This is the Kingdom that we were created for, and it is living in this Kingdom that must be our first concern, but not our only one.
Until the Lord returns to transform this fallen world, we must live in it. This world, always tempted by sin and damaged by its effects, needs to be guided, and for this, God does give human rulers (caesars, presidents, mayors, prime ministers, courts, legislators, etc) to follow lest chaos should ensue. God Himself gives authority to these rulers, so that that they might serve the Kingdom of God. Cyrus the Great in the first reading, while not even being a Jew (which reminds us that EVERYONE receives his or her authority from God, even if they do not believe it), was anointed by God to be a ruler. He was one of the good rulers (for the Jews, at least), but as we know, there are plenty of bad ones too, Hitler being a most obvious example.
So here’s the questions for Christians with one foot in each world: What do we owe to God, and what do we really owe to Caesar, especially when Caesar often rules in a way antagonistic to the Kingdom of God? While the Pharisees generated their question out of nefarious motives, it was nonetheless a good question.
The first part of the answer is this: Give first and always to God what belongs to Him, which is everything, our obedience and our love. It is only when we do this that we can properly consider our relationship with Caesar. Many people, sadly even many Christians, take Jesus’ words to be something of a biblical version of Thomas Jefferson’s separation of church and state idea (or at least the radicalization of that ideal which Jefferson himself never intended), as if they are two very separate realms that must always remain apart. This is a lie! We cannot serve well this world if we do not first tend to the Kingdom of God.
So what does a Catholic owe to Caesar? We owe obedience to him and his laws as long as his dictates first conform with the rule of God. Let’s face it, we need rules and structure, and the Bible does not cover all of the nitty-gritty things of this world. Try if you like, but speed limits and health insurance are not covered in detail anywhere in there. We need Caesar to help us with these things, and often they do not violate any of God’s laws.