Fr Lino Moreira OSB
In the sixth year of the Christian era, Rome introduced in Palestine a poll tax of one denarius per adult person. Many argued that to pay such a tax was to acknowledge a foreign pagan sovereignty over Israel, which was forbidden by the Law of Moses. However, when Jesus was consulted about this matter, the aim was not to settle the question, but rather, as Saint Matthew puts it, to ensnare him in his words (cf. Mt 22:15).
If Jesus said that it was lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, he would incur the wrath of nationalists and lose his credibility before those who regarded him as a prophet. But if he said the opposite, he would be denounced as a revolutionary, who was inciting the people to rebel against Roman rule.
One cannot but admire the skill with which the trap was laid. Jesus was confronted with a yes or no question which was prefaced by very flattering words: “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (Mt 22:16). This statement was meant as a ploy but, ironically, it was a perfect description of Jesus, who said of himself: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). As the embodiment of truth, Jesus could not be deceived or influenced by any form of outward show, and being in awe of none, he said: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax” (Mt 22: 18-19).
At this point we need to remember that Jesus was speaking in the Temple at Jerusalem, and that the denarius brought to him was a powerful symbol of a pagan cult, for it showed the head of the Emperor Tiberius over an inscription which read: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus, great High Priest.” The claim here was that, after his death, Octavius Augustus had been deified, and therefore his heir, Tiberius, the ruling Emperor, was to be honoured as the son of a god.
“Whose image and inscription is this?” – Jesus asked. – They said: “Caesar’s”. Then he said to them: “Therefore give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt 22: 18-19). By drawing such a sharp distinction between Caesar on the one hand and God on the other, Jesus was pointing out, first of all, that the Roman Emperors were no more than perishable men, according to the words spoken by God through the prophet Isaiah: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god” (Is 45:5). And in Psalm 46 it is also said: The rulers of the earth belong to God, to God who reigns over all. That means that the course of human history is in the hands of our Maker, and all kinds of worship of a worldly leader are to be rejected as a form of idolatry. However, there is an obligation to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The taxes legitimately imposed by the civil authorities must be paid in line with Saint Paul’s teaching in the Epistle to the Romans: Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed (Rm 13:7). And the basis for doing all this, Saint Paul tells us, is that the governing authorities have been instituted by God to serve the common good (cf. Rm 13:1.4).
As Christians, therefore, we are urged to fulfil our civic duties and contribute generously to the welfare of society. But that should be a consequence and an expression of a much greater and more important commitment – namely, the commitment to love and serve the one true God. That is why, in the Temple at Jerusalem, Jesus gave the commandment to pay back to God what is God’s. Caesar had a right to claim a denarius, on which his image had been imprinted, but to God belong the lives of all his children, created in his own image and likeness (cf. Gn 1:26). So to worship God, our Father, in spirit and truth (cf. Jn 4:23) is essentially to return the gift of our very existence to the one from whom we have received it. As Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe said in one of his sermons: “Give God his own image in yourself, an image that must be kept undiminished by prudent care, pure by true faith and shining by good habits and deeds.”