Government, economics and politics – all belong to God
October 14, 2020
We hear from the 22nd chapter of Matthew this Sunday. At this point the Lord is in Jerusalem just weeks before his Passion. Evil is closing in on him, and he is confronted by Pharisees trying to trap him so they can get the Jewish people or the Romans against him.
The discussion of religion in relation to politics was volatile in the Lord’s time just as it is today, and that is exactly why the Pharisees asked a carefully-crafted question about whether it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not. If the Lord answers, yes, it is lawful to pay the tax to the Romans, he would be agreeing with the oppressors of the Jewish people, and then the Jews would be against him. If the Lord says, no, it is not lawful to pay the tax, then he has the Romans against him. Answering either yes or no yields deadly opposition – that was the point.
But the Lord is nobody’s fool. He answered the only way he could – in absolute truth, which will always confound those who speak in lies. “Show me the coin. Whose image is this?” “Caesar’s.” “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Through the centuries down to today, there has been a constant debate about the relationship between religion and politics – Church and state. Some have interpreted the Lord’s response to favor a sharp distinction between religion and politics. Give to Caesar what is his on this side, and give to God what is God’s on the other side – do not mix the two. But this is not the right way to take the Lord’s words.
Government and civil authorities have a rightful authority in the world. Governments make laws which bring reason and order to society. The Church should not try to be in the business of governing nations. Government is a good institution if it fulfills its duty to shape lawful, just and peaceful societies for the development of humanity while respecting individual liberty. So, in this regard, we do give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar: We respect the role of government.
But then the next command: “Give to God what belongs to God.” What, then, belongs to God? Ultimately, everything: the universe, human hearts and souls, cities, societies and even government – all of it rightly should function in his service and according to his will for humanity. So even if the coin is stamped with Caesar’s image meaning it belongs to him, ultimately, even Caesar belongs to God.
Government, economics, societal life, even politics, these belong to God, and our actions in these situations must be informed by strong and clear religious values for them to function well for the good of all. The free exercise of religion – not just freedom to worship, mind you, but the freedom to live fully according to our religious beliefs in the public sector – should shape government, laws and society. The employment of our religious values in public life is vital to creating a world that will support the common good and the dignity of persons.