As today’s Gospel, the famous “Give unto Caesar” incident, reminds us, the mixing of politics and religion has been problematic dating all the way back to the time of Jesus. This is not to suggest that there isn’t a clear Christian or Gospel imperative about what it means to be a follower of Christ in terms of political engagement. Instead, it means that what such a call entails might not exactly match up with one’s expectations.
This is what happens in the case of those religious leaders who try to entrap Jesus. Realizing that they are not going to beat him at “his game,” that is religion — for Jesus out serves, out loves, out forgives, out cares for the people of his day. What Jesus does in welcoming the despised, embracing the forgotten and hearing the voiceless is threaten the power structures and security that the religious establishment of his day enjoyed.
This was not, I might add, Jesus’s intention. Rather, as the Gospels make very clear time and again, Jesus’s mission was simply to follow the will of God his Father. It just so happens that following the will of God stood in direct conflict with the agenda of many of the religious leaders.
In response to the threat, the religious leaders seek to silence the voice that challenges their security and hegemonic authority by drawing on political issues that are divisive and polarizing. The impetus: taxes. The goal: showing that Jesus wasn’t a “true patriot” (to use today’s language).
Yet, in the creative and prophetic way that he so often engages such nonsense, Jesus surprises his questioners. Pay taxes, who cares? Is Jesus’s response. In other words, there’s nothing about being an active citizen that is overtly contrary to God’s plan for humanity.
BUT — and this is a big caveat — Jesus explains that one must keep his or her priorities straight! One should never confuse being a good citizen with being on good terms with his or her creator, or with following God’s will.
For, while it’s right and proper to pay taxes to Caesar, one must return to God all that belongs to God…which is everything!
What is owed to God is our entire life and the way we return to God all that belongs to God is by following the model of Jesus Christ. We are to serve the least ones, surrender our power for the sake of others, speak on behalf of the voiceless and stand up against the injustices of our day.
There are so many people today that fit the modern role of the “Pharisees and Herodians” that were sent to Jesus to ensnare him. They are the religious leaders and politicians of our day that seek to confuse religion in politics for their own personal gain and to silence the prophetic voice of those who see injustice in the Church and world.
The Second Letter of Peter we also read today warns us about these characters, telling us to be on our “guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled” and to fall from our own stability. Instead, we are to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
We must be awake and aware of those who wish to do to us today what the Pharisees and Herodians did to Jesus in his time. Be alert about what religious leaders and politicians say in getting us to defend our “patriotism” or “loyalty” to the State, when in truth this is a ploy to polarize and divide. Be aware of who is benefiting from claims of liberty and justice, and who stands to suffer — is it the wealthy and powerful or the poor and marginalized?