Column: ‘Caesar’ passage misconstrued in modern homes

by Father Mike Stubbs

Political opinion in this country has built a wall of separation between church and state based upon the First Amendment clause in the Constitution.

At the same time, while people may agree about the existence of that separation, they often disagree about where exactly to draw the line. Does it permit vouchers to parochial schools? Does it allow the government to give medical treatment to children whose parents oppose that treatment on religious grounds?

If our country has trouble in finding where to draw the line, we are not alone. For example, France currently prohibits the wearing of head scarves by female Muslim students. China does not allow Chinese religious organizations to be subject to outside control. And yet, these countries maintain that they recognize religious freedom. They only conceive of it in a different way than ourselves, because of their distinctive histories. France underwent centuries of a close alliance between the church and the crown. Western missionaries in China during the 19th century, besides spreading the gospel, often promoted their own governments. Those experiences have influenced the present policies of China and France towards religion.

Where should we draw the line? We might suppose that this question lies behind the inquiry that the Pharisees and the Herodians make when they ask Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 22:15-21: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Are they asking about the separation of church and state?

If we suppose that, we are sorely mistaken. The concept of the separation of church and state was unknown in the ancient world. That notion arose during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Nothing of the like was driving the question posed by the Pharisees and the Herodians.

Instead, they were asking how the people of Israel should relate to a foreign government, the Roman Empire. Being foreign meant that it was also Gentile, non-Jewish. This was not the first time that the Jewish people had to deal with occupation by a foreign power.

Centuries earlier, Israel had been conquered by the Neo-Babylonians, who had taken them into exile. The Persians succeeded them in power, followed by Alexander the Great and the dynasties of his generals. Israel then enjoyed a brief period of freedom before being absorbed into the Roman Empire.

For Israel, resistance to foreign occupation was linked to rejection of pagan religion. The question that the Pharisees posed about paying tax to Caesar really concerns the extent of opposition to Caesar that they should take. Not paying the tax would amount to open opposition, a very dangerous stance for Jesus to advocate. On the other hand, paying the tax could amount to acquiescence to a pagan religion. After all, Caesar was worshipped as a god.

By their question, the Pharisees are placing Jesus in an extremely difficult position. They want him to choose between loyalty to the government and faithfulness to his religion. They want to trap him.

By his response, Jesus appears to answer the question yet avoid the dilemma. He cleverly escapes the trap the Pharisees have set. He would have made a good politician. But we claim him as our king.

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