A significant section of Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical letter on love and charity looks at where the divide between Caesar and God should lie in today's secular environment. The Pope writes: "Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: Its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics."
To illustrate these points, let's consider for a moment the provocative Gospel story of the temple tax that speaks to us about the thorny issues of taxation, ethics and politics. It is fitting to look at this story on the eve of our own tax season.
In the story, a Pharisee compliments Jesus for being honest, teaching the way of God authentically, and taking no account of any person's status or opinion (Matthew 22:15). Jesus was certainly aware of the hidden agenda behind this question, and he understood the challenge before him.
Then the questioning begins. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" The specific tax mentioned here is a head tax required of every man, woman, and slave between the ages of 12 and 65. It amounted to a day's wages. This hated tax, instituted in 6 A.D. when Judea had become a Roman province, was nothing more than fuel on the flames of nationalist opposition to the occupying power.
The Pharisees resisted the tax, while the Herodians openly supported the Romans and favoured payment of the tax. If Jesus supported paying tribute to Caesar, the Emperor, he would be discredited as a prophet. If however, he argued against paying the tax, it could be used later to portray him to the Romans as a dangerous revolutionary.
Jesus saw through the trap and asked for the coin used to pay the tax. He inquired about the image and inscription found on the coin. Many Jews then considered the coin blasphemous because it violated the commandment against graven images. Its inscription "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the Divine Augustus, high priest" made a claim that rivaled God's exclusive sovereignty over Israel.
Jesus answers: "Give therefore to the emperor (Caesar) the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." He implies that neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians are doing that. Pharisees were so devoted to observing the Torah's 613 commandments that they proposed observing just a little bit more to be sure of pleasing God. Jesus's astute response to his tricky questioners was straightforward and direct, not evasive like many a person concerned about his own career!
In the end, we are left with two images -- the image of Caesar and the image of God. To the first image, Jesus asks a simple question: Whose picture is on the coin? The emperor's. Therefore, give the emperor the part of your possession that belongs to him. But Jesus also has a second, penetrating question: whose image and blessing is on humankind? God's. Therefore, give to God your entire being-- undivided.
Is service to God and to Caesar compatible? We face a perpetual temptation to accept the promise of material blessings and power from political, economic and even ecclesiastical systems in exchange for circumscribing our commitment to God. What is required is the courage and wisdom to give simple, truthful answers when we find ourselves in ambiguous and compromising situations.