As we get closer to Election Day, it becomes more and more clear that parsing words and giving answers that really are not answers are an art form. How many times do we hear a politician get asked a question, only to say after an answer is given that they really did not answer the question at all. In fact, there are those who are paid a lot of money to create these “spin” answers.
When I had one of my media classes, I learned that the art of answering a question on television is to believe the question itself was irrelevant. Simply give the answer that you want to give. It does not take long before this can be learned and used, I am a little ashamed to say.
While Jesus’ answer to the question about the relationship between religious practice and civil law (“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?“) he gives a wonderful answer, since it preserves his religious priorities without placing himself in a difficult position with civil authorities where he could be accused of treason. How does he do this?
It is all in the proper understanding of his answer. “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Why is this answer so clever? Because it understands rightly the appropriate relationship between Church and state. How would the people who were religious have understood Jesus answer?
First, it is important to remember that in a very real way, everything belongs to God. So in the answer that Jesus gives, what belongs to God is literally everything, and so God is worthy of our true allegiance. At the same time, Jesus acknowledges the role of the state. He is not worshipping Caesar (as the emporer) but is recognizing the appropriate role civil leaders have in government.
For us today, it is important to remember that our primary allegiance is always to God and his commandments. While often interpreted today in a way that suggests that separation of Church and state is to protect the state from religioun, the truth is that the amendment was created to allow for the free exercise of religion without interference from the state. Those that came to the New World were looking for freedom that had been denied them to worship freely. And so the free exercise clause intends that religious priorities will be held in highest regard.
This is what Jesus is suggesting by understanding the right distinction between repaying Caesar and repaying God. Since we can never repay God, Jesus is reminding his followers of the most important obligation we have to be open to God’s life giving relationship.
We have civil responsibilities too. Lost on many today is the importance of the common good. Why should I pay taxes for schools when I do not have any children of my own? Because it is better for the common good if we have an educated population. I may never use the fire department or the police department either, but it is in the interest of the common good that we provide such services. I drive on roads that were made for the common good, and I receive other services because of the common good.
At the same time, the government must respect the contributions of religious people as well. I am afraid that we have become unable to understand the distinctions between acting upon the common good and religious dogma. When I pay taxes, I am acting upon the common good. When I express my opinion about paying taxes, I am engaging in conversation about the common good (or not, if I decide no one should pay taxes for what one does not use). I might use principles that arise from the Bible to support my beliefs, but stating my beliefs and entering into the public marketplace of ideas is my right as a citizen.
Out of my religiously held beliefs I work to make what I believe to be a better society. I believe health care is a right, and so I want every citizen to have health care. I believe abortion and capital punishment are wrong, and have a detrimental effect on the common good, and so I am going to work to eliminate these from society. Since I hold all children in such high regard, I support making sure the opportunity for health care, nutrition and the other basic needs are available to everyone, regardless of their socio-economic beliefs.
When a politician suggests that they cannot hold a particular view because not all of their constituents share their religion, they misunderstand the role of any citizen to speak out upon important matters. Certainly these same politicians do not take opinions polls on every issue, or allow all their constituents to vote so they will know how, as an elected offical, how to cast their ballot.
As persons of faith and citizens of the United States, we too must carefully consider the issues of the day in light of our faith. We must inform ourselves on the positions of candidates, and use our reason to draw conclusions about what is moral in voting for this candidate over that candidate. In the complexity of our world today, such work integrating faith and reason is quite important. Howevver, we must hear the words of Jesus and seek his grace to rightly put them into practice. em>Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.