Grace to you!
It’s virtuous to keep to our civic duties. Paying taxes, casting votes, contributing in various ways to make our society a better place in which to live, keeping to traffic rules and following policies designed to promote the common good, etc. It’s part of our “social contract.”
Sometimes, however, maintaining this responsibility is challenging, especially when there is a conflict between one’s belief and what a particular government stands for. The feeling is worse if there is a perceived injustice. The government can sometimes be a pain, especially when you have leaders who seem not to care so much about the welfare of the people, but only about themselves and about power.
What are we expected to do in dealing with a seeming situation of conflict between our rule of conscience and the duty to the state?
This is a broad question and the Church has rich contributions regarding it’s different aspects discussed under the umbrella of the Church’s Social Teaching. I will limit my thoughts on this spiritual reflection to one aspect relating to what the Gospel tells us (Mt 22:15-21) in the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodias. Wanting to trap Jesus, they asked the famous question whether it was lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not.
Their question was ambiguous. What do they mean by “Lawful?” Is it in reference to government laws as well as the Jewish Law (Torah)? The census tax was paid only with the Roman coin which has the head of Caesar inscribed on it. Caesar wasn’t a Jew. He was a Roman emperor governing from Rome, and cults were formed around him. You may have heard of the “emperor cult” where the Caesar was literarily worshipped as God.
In other words, it could be that those Pharisees and the Herodias were probing Jesus on whether they should use their hard-earned money to support a Roman king/government which, by all means, is the opposite of what they believe kingship is for the Jews? For the Jews, only God deserves their ultimate loyalty and paying Caesar seems opposed to their belief.
For the leading Pharisees and Herodias to ask Jesus this question appears hypocritical. Weren’t they the very ones who worked closely with the Roman government to maintain their status in the relationship, as opposed to the ‘radicals (Zealots and Sicarii)” who want complete separation from Rome? By the way, when Jesus asked for a Roman coin—perhaps the Lord didn’t have one—they were the ones who provided it. This probably meant they were likely carrying the “forbidden” coin with Caesar’s image on them, the coin used for the census tax and not their usual money for day-to-day transactions as Judeans. Isn’t this hypocritical?
Note that the political situation at the time (that is between 6 AD and 73 AD) was precarious. Two groups—the Zealots and the Sicarii—openly opposed Roman rule over Judah. Many times they pushed a violent revolt against the Roman rule. The Sicarii in particular were so violent that anyone (Jew or non-Jew) who they felt were opposed to their cause of Judah nationalism could be killed. Thus, given the rise of Judah nationalism, it would be a politically incorrect thing for anyone to publicly support the paying of census taxes to Rome.
So, the question was pitting Jesus against nationalism as a Jew versus Roman nationalism; between politically correct posture and an opposition. On the other hand, it was pitting the Lord between the Law of Moses and the law of the Roman state to which Judah was subject, at least in terms of the census tax. In addition, it was a test on whether paying of census taxes was a support of the emperor worship, whose economic power was sustained through census taxes from territories under his control.
However, Jesus’ answer shows he is indeed the Wisdom of God: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” says it all.
Giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar isn’t a recipe for giving up your faith or the rule of conscience. It’s not a ticket to unethical compromise; neither does it suggest a clear-cut separation between the Church and the state as if to say it isn’t the same citizen who is a member of the Church who is equally a member of the state. Rather, it is a call to civic duty, as well as defense for religious liberty. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
Likewise, it’s the Lord’s endorsement of legitimate civic authority. One must not be a believer before he or she could be “anointed” by the Lord to lead as a civic authority. Sometimes God inspires individuals who do not share in ones faith tradition to serve in far more ways than those of one’s religion. That was the case with Cyrus, the King of Persia, whom we read about in the Prophecy of Isaiah 45:1, 4-6. For the sake of His people, God could anoint an unfamiliar person to be a champion of freedom and peace as was the case with King Cyrus.
The Letter to the Romans emphasizes that God grants civic authority (no matter who has been voted into it) and we are to obey a legitimate political authority under which we belong in matters relating to the state (see Rom 13:1-7). 1 Peter 2:13-17 restates the same teaching. Anarchism is not a good thing for the smooth running of society. We need government to function well in society in order for our individual rights to be protected and the common good promoted. We don’t need government to take away our inalienable rights either.
True political freedom promotes religious freedom. True religious freedom adorns the state. Civic responsibilities equally entail civic rights. The two go together.
Praying for the grace to fulfill our civic duties; knowing that in doing so, we are promoting what is good, and that we are living our faith also.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[29th Sunday A: Is 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thes 1:1-5b; Mt 22:15-21]
Author and Goal
Father Maurice Emelu PhD., provides a daily blog of reflections based on the Scriptural readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. The goal is to teach, inspire, encourage, and foster healing through the grace of God's word. They are written in a language that is appropriate for a general audience. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration, and developing your thoughts. They may also be useful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.