Before rushing headlong into our Gospel, let’s have a look at something important from our first reading. In this passage, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we read that Cyrus, whose right hand the LORD grasped, is referred to as the LORD’s anointed. Why is this significant? It is significant because Cyrus was the king of Persia. In BC 539, the Persians, led by Cyrus, conquered the Babylonians, who had destroyed Jerusalem, including the First Temple, and led many away into exile. In BC 538, Cyrus decreed that the exiles could return to Jerusalem and that the holy city could be rebuilt, including the Temple.
If the significance of that is not yet obvious, it is a case of God using a ruler to accomplish His purpose in and for the world. In his encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris, Pope St John XXIII wrote, “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all” (par 46). “The good of all” referred to here is nothing other than the common good.
In the first instance, the common good requires respect for the dignity the human person as such, that is, the human being as a bearer the imago dei, the divine image, or, more philosophically, a being with a transcendent dimension. This means that those in public authority are bound to respect “the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church par 1907), identified in our Declaration of Independence as God-given, “unalienable Rights.” And so, the common good requires that all people be permitted to exercise their natural freedoms, which exercise is necessary in order for each person to have the possibility of realizing the end for which s/he is made, which is God Himself.
Turning, then, to our Gospel: Jesus’ interlopers sought to ensnare Him in a trap, but to no avail. By asking Him whether or not it was lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar, the Pharisees and the Herodians (the latter of whom were most likely a political party seeking the restoration of Jewish self-rule under the Herodian dynasty- the Herod’s were Roman vassals during Jesus’ time) thought they had the Lord in a Catch-22. If He said Jewish law forbade Jews to pay the census tax, then He would be openly fomenting opposition to the Roman occupiers, who did not look favorably on such rabble-rousers. If He said it was lawful, then they believed He would discredit Himself and that would weaken His influence and would likely reduce the number of His followers, as the census tax was a loathsome thing to them.
Not only does Jesus’ answer allow Him to evade the trap, it is also the basis for recognizing the legitimacy of governmental authority, even while giving priority to following God. This all sounds neat and fine, but what about those times when our allegiance to God and our allegiance to the state come into conflict? Certainly we live in a time when this is the case, whether it is the unjust HHS mandate, the attempt to re-define marriage, and the fall-out from that for individual Christian citizens, mostly small business-owners, or the courts, as in one case before the Louisiana Supreme Court, seeking to force a priest to divulge something a penitent confessed to him in the Sacrament of Penance.
Among other things, fostering the common good requires governments and officials to act in accord with both divine and natural law, or, to put it in the language of Scholastic theology, to act in accord with right reason. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this means that if rulers or governments “enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order," these laws and measures do not bind us in conscience (par 1903). When necessary, we are to staunchly and peaceably disobey such laws, a practice known as civil disobedience.
In his First Apology, St Justin Martyr, echoing the teaching of Christ, wrote about the charge that Christians were enemies of the state because of their refusal to participate in pagan rites and because they spoke about belonging to another kingdom. Justin argued they were not enemies of the Empire because the kingdom Christians seek is not an earthly kingdom, a kingdom that would be a rival to Rome. If the kingdom Christians anticipated were an earthly kingdom, he reasoned, they wouldn't accept martyrdom in such a clam manner. Instead, they would hide and await the earthly kingdom. On the contrary, St Justin pointed out, more than anyone else, Christians are good citizens because they are allies “in fostering peace,” believing that one day everyone will face God and give an account of their lives. “Only God do we worship,” he said, “but in other things we joyfully obey you, acknowledging you as the kings and rulers of men.” He even used today’s Gospel as an example of what he meant.
Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, tells us, “The way in which the earthly and the heavenly city interpenetrate each other can be recognized only by faith; indeed, it remains a mystery of human history, that is, of a history always troubled by sin” until Christ returns (par 40). Being “the universal sacrament of salvation,” the Church “has one object in view: the coming of God’s kingdom and the salvation of the whole human race” (par 45). In accomplishing her goal of bringing salvation to the world, “The Church believes… she can make a great contribution, through [her] individual members and the community as a whole [by]… bringing a greater humanity to the family of man and to its history” (par 40).
The only way it is possible for us to render to God what is God’s is by participating in the Eucharist. Several years ago, in a speech entitled “Beyond Secular Reason," Archbishop Javier Martínez identified the “Eucharist [as] the only place of resistance to the annihilation of the human subject.” The centrality of the Eucharist was stated beautifully in the final message from the bishops participating in the Extraordinary Synod, which concludes today in Rome: “The high point which sums up all the threads of communion with God and neighbor is the Sunday Eucharist when the family and the whole Church sits at table with the Lord. He gives himself to all of us, pilgrims through history towards the goal of the final encounter when ‘Christ is all and in all’ (Col 3:11).” And so it is, we can only render to God what is God’s because the Father sent His Son, who, in and through the Eucharist, by the power of the Holy Spirit, gives Himself to us.