by the Most Reverend Charles C. Thompson, Archbishop of Indianapolis

Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Mt 22:21).

The Gospel reading for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time contains familiar words of Jesus in response to the Pharisees’ attempt to trap him into saying something that would be politically incorrect. We know this familiar saying, but we don’t always understand it.

The questioners begin with an obviously insincere expression of flattery: “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.”

Then, when they think he’s been sufficiently “buttered up,” they ask Jesus a loaded question: “Tell us, then, what is your opinion. Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

The dilemma is that if Jesus says, “Yes, it is lawful to pay the tax,” he appears to contradict Jewish Law. But if he says, “No, it is not lawful to pay the tax,” he would be urging them to disregard Roman Law. It’s a no-win situation.

But Jesus is smarter than the Pharisees. St. Matthew tells us that he knew their malicious intent, and he avoided their trap by throwing the question back at them: 

“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” 

At this, Jesus says to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” St. Matthew then tell us that “When they heard this, they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.”

What is so amazing about Jesus’ response to this question about whether or not it is lawful to pay the tax? Throughout Christian history, many commentators, including some great saints, have reflected on this Gospel passage. St. Augustine observed, for example, that “we are the coins of God stamped with his image, and God demands the return of his coins as Caesar did the return of his.” And St. Jerome said: “Let us give to Caesar the money which bears his inscription, since we cannot do otherwise, but let us give ourselves freely and of our own accord to God, for what our soul bears is the glorious imprint of the face of a God and not the more or less majestic head of an emperor.” 

These interpretations demonstrate the “both/and” perspective that is fundamental to the Christian worldview. Jesus is not saying that money and material things are bad and, therefore, can be given to Caesar. Nor does he suggest that only “spiritual” things belong to God. In fact, everything belongs to God— “all things visible and invisible” as we affirm in the Creed. Everything that God created is good and belongs to God alone. We are but trusted servants, stewards of God’s creation.

So, when Jesus says, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” he is reminding the Pharisees (and all of us) that we are responsible for taking care of, and sharing, both our material possessions and our spiritual gifts. “Let us give ourselves freely and of our own accord to God,” as St. Jerome says, because everything that we have belongs ultimately to our Creator.

Jesus refuses to fall into the trap of thinking that there is a radical division between spiritual and material things. Since everything belongs to God, responsible Christian stewards are called to treat all things as sacred and worthy of respect. We know that we will be held accountable for the way we care for all God’s gifts, and therefore we strive to demonstrate our stewardship responsibility by giving back both to God and to the community (represented in our modern democracy by the elected officials who levy taxes and ensure the public good).

When Jesus tells the Pharisees (and all of us) to repay to God what belongs to God, he includes both our material and spiritual gifts. Yes, we have to pay our taxes since, as St. Jerome says, “we cannot do otherwise.” But all of our financial transactions—buying, selling, saving, investing, giving to charities, and paying taxes—have a spiritual dimension because they reflect the profound but simple truth that, in the end, everything belongs to God.

“We are the coins of God stamped with his image,” St. Augustine reminds us. That means that our primary responsibility is to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God and to our neighbor. Let us never forget this all-important stewardship responsibility.