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Render What You Must unto Caesar, but Never Forget Whose Kingdom Comes First


Kevin-Dooley CC

Canonry of St. Leopold - published on 10/17/14

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. 

Very often, however, many of Caesar’s laws do in fact conflict with the Kingdom of God, like when we have laws/policies supporting abortion, when we mock marriage with alternative arrangements, and when we restrict the freedom to believe and practice one’s faith. Thankfully, many Christians live in countries where they have a voice, and in those places in particular, there is one more important thing that we owe to Caesar: our conscientious vote!

In the United States, this Sunday’s Gospel comes just a few weeks before November elections, and it is a good thing that it does. Far from commanding that one check his or her faith at the curtain of the polling booth (if there still are such things), this Gospel challenges us to bravely take it in with us. 

Society often tells sub-groups to vote a particular way. Women are expected to vote as women, minorities are expected to vote as minorities, poor people are expected to vote as poor people, and atheists are expected to vote as atheists. What is rarely called for is for religious people, especially Christians, to vote as Christians, as if we are expected to check our faith at the door. We must always strongly reject this notion.

We must always remember that Caesar is called to serve the people of Kingdom of God; the people are not there to serve him!  Caesar’s authority is given to him from God so that he might help create the social conditions which free us to more easily and more fully live in the Kingdom of God. If he is not doing this, then he is failing God and us..   

Making sure our faith primarily influences our vote, especially in regards to the most important issues like abortion, marriage and family, attending to the poor, preference for peace, and the dignity of work, is how we best serve Caesar. This is not done in an attempt to force belief upon one another, but to stand up for what we know to be true. And what is true, is true for all, whether one is Catholic, Muslim, atheist, Lutheran, Buddhist, Hindu or anything else. What God has to teach us about our human nature and about what is most important transcends our differences.

Catholics must take seriously our responsibility to Caesar. Yes, all of the important issues are never fully represented by one political party or candidate, and there are many issues good Catholics can disagree upon, but we must always look for candidates whom we hope will best move us closer to the ideals (and happiness) of the Kingdom of God. This desire must always be what primarily motivates our vote, and it cannot be done outside of our faith.

Many leaders in history have tried to create paradise on Earth, and because they ignored God and the nature of sin, what they inevitably created was hell on Earth. The paradise for which we were created can never be achieved by mankind, but when we render first to God what belongs to Him, then demand that our leaders do the same, we can begin living more and more in the Kingdom of God.

Prepared for Aleteia by theCanonry of Saint LeopoldClick here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.

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