He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
The last sentence of today’s Gospel passage is well-known. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus’ reply to the malicious, hypocritical disciples of the Pharisees is effective in shooing them away, as the verse following today’s passage reveals. But Jesus’ rhetorical skills aren’t the point of this passage. His reply leaves an implied question unanswered: “What exactly belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God?”
Some might reply, “Everything belongs to God!” But the context of today’s Gospel passage suggests otherwise, with Jesus implying that the coin does indeed belong to Caesar. This doesn’t contradict the plain truth that every good thing ultimately comes from God. But the fact that something comes from God doesn’t mean that it belongs to God. God has reasons for entrusting things over to our belonging.
But is the coin one of these good things? If the coin belongs to Caesar, perhaps Jesus is admitting this because it’s bad? In the last sentence of the passage, is Jesus simply making a distinction between bad and good, between the things of earth and the things of Heaven? If so, then why didn’t He encourage His disciples to flee from society and everything associated with it, including “filthy lucre”, as some call it?
Jesus’ actions in this and other Gospel passages show that He does not condemn money or its use per se. Money is in itself a good, and it belongs to the government that mints it or prints it. Money is an agency of human government, and it’s within this context that we can see its role.
Governments are formed by human beings who use right reason to organize their relationships with neighbors both near and far. As such, the idea of government comes from God, since God by His creative and sustaining power governs the whole universe. In human government, money is a useful part of governing our relationships with neighbors.
Returning to today’s Gospel passage, what is Jesus really commanding? What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? If one wants faithfully to follow Jesus, to what extent should one’s life be bound up with the things of this world? A clue is offered by today’s Responsorial.
In Psalm 96 the Psalmist weaves references to the “nations”—a word which appears once in each of the four verses of today’s Responsorial—amongst references to “the Lord”. For example, Psalm 96:5 proclaims that “all the gods of the nations are things of nought, but the Lord made the heavens.” The contrast between the nations and the Lord anticipates that between Caesar and God. Focus, though, on how the Psalmist answers the question of what belongs to the Lord.
“Give the Lord glory and honor.” Here the Psalmist gives an example of what belongs to God: not money, but glory and honor. Reflecting on this, we see a difference in what “belongs” to Caesar or any other man, and what “belongs” to God. What belongs to the Lord is His by His very divine nature. It cannot possibly be taken from Him, yet He shares it with us so that we might return it to Him, and rejoice in doing so.
By contrast are things that “belong” to human beings. They’re of several different types. We could consider those things that belong to one by human nature: intelligence, will, body and soul. We could consider those things that belong to one personally: my ancestry and parentage, nationality, race and religion. However, when most of us think of what “belongs” to us, we number first far less important things: things that can be taken away from us, such as money or possessions. These belong to us in the least certain manner, and yet we count them as the most dear.
The money and possessions in our lives belong to us that we may love our neighbor with them and through them. When I think of them as belonging to me in an enduring way, or as a means for loving myself, they become those “things of nought” that the Psalmist speaks of: “idols”, as another translation puts it. Love your God by giving Him the glory and honor that is His, and love your neighbors by using your belongings for their benefit rather than your own.