Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. With this line, our Lord avoids the trap set by the Pharisees and Herodians. But it’s more than a clever escape. His words also establish one of the most important principles in the history of human thought: limited government and the distinction between the church and state.
We Americans might take these things for granted. But in the ancient world, such limits and distinctions were unknown. Notice that the Pharisees and Herodians team up against our Lord. These are two groups that wouldn’t otherwise be together. What they share in this context is the conviction that kingdom and worship should be just one thing. No limits, no distinction. Jesus not only frustrates their short-term goal of trapping him but also forces them to rethink that arrangement.
The first part of our Lord’s response – Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – indicates clearly that the state has a legitimate role and autonomy. Even pagan rulers should be obeyed. No one can say, “Not my Emperor!”
The Apostles continue our Lord’s teaching. Saint Paul says, Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Saint Peter writes, Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether it be to the king as supreme or to governors.
So, the Church recognizes and respects the state’s legitimate role and autonomy. The vast majority of political issues do not admit of a specifically Catholic answer and are left to those in public office. The Church’s role is not to run the government but to form consciences and identify the principles for discernment in the public square. The details should be left to those entrusted with serving the common good.
But then there’s that second part of our Lord’s line: repay to God what belongs to God. That establishes a limit to the state’s authority. So, there’s a line at which the Church says to the state, “Thus far and no further.” What’s that line?
Well, if what bears Caesar’s image belongs to Caesar, then what bears God’s image must belong to God. Man, created in God’s image and likeness, belongs to God. He cannot be surrendered to the state. Thus, the truth, dignity, and rights of the human person establish the limits – and the purpose – of government authority. The Church requires not that public authorities legislate Catholic doctrine and morals but that they govern according to the truth of the human person.
But when the state oversteps its limits and assumes an authority over the person that it doesn’t have. . .when it redefines marriage. . .when it rejects the reality of man and woman . . .when it butchers the innocent in the womb. . .when it violates freedom of religion – then Caesar has seized what rightly belongs to God. Then the Church’s shepherds have a responsibility to speak out, to defend the rights of God and the truth of man.
Some will cry foul and recite the old canards: Politics has no place in the pulpit. We should keep religion out of politics. Separation of church and state! Of course, nobody really believes those things. After all, a common criticism thrown at the Church is that her shepherds didn’t speak out enough against slavery, or Hitler, or segregation. And nobody excuses such silence with, “Well, politics has no place in the pulpit.”
Of course, a priest shouldn’t absolutize those many issues that admit of prudential judgment and a diversity of opinions among faithful Catholics. There’s no specifically Catholic solution on immigration, or healthcare, or Ukraine, etc. We can fight about those issues. We just have to fight as children of God, according to Catholic teaching.
But when the shepherds speak out against abortion, or the redefinition of marriage, or the trampling of religious freedom, they are not intruding into politics. They’re defending God’s rights against intrusive politicians. The right to life, the meaning of marriage, the reality of male and female – such things belong to God. We cannot cooperate in giving them to Caesar. When the Church speaks out on those matters, she is simply echoing the word of her divine Spouse: repay to God what belongs to God.
Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. There is another, more personal, meaning of this verse. You belong to God, not to Caesar. You belong to prayer, not to politics. Yes, you should be informed and involved in politics – to a degree. But politics is not the only or even the most important thing. If you invest more time in politics than in prayer; if you read more about the upcoming elections than about your Lord; if you are more concerned about earthly rule than heavenly – then you have given to Caesar what belongs to God. Caesar has become your god.
The first way to defend the rights of God against incursions of the state is to make sure that you are living your life as one who belongs to him; to think more about his Kingdom than even our own country; to spend more time contemplating eternal truths than being tugged into what passes for news. When you place worship and service of the eternal God ahead of everything else, then you relativize the state’s authority and give what belongs to God.