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Moral versus Civic Duty
Memorial of Saint Justin, Martyr
They sent some Pharisees and Herodians to him to ensnare him in his speech. They came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion. You do not regard a person’s status but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?” Knowing their hypocrisy he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” They brought one to him and he said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They replied to him, “Caesar’s.” So Jesus said to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They were utterly amazed at him.
Opening Prayer: Dear Lord Jesus, I thank you for the grace of coming before you in prayer. I thank you for the faith that has made me desire to pray, but I also ask you to increase my faith. May my contact with your word help me to rely ever more deeply on you and less on my own strength. Please open my mind and heart to hear what you wish to tell me.
- Knowing Their Hypocrisy: The Pharisees called Jesus a good teacher, but they had no desire to learn. The Pharisees and the Herodians were laying a trap for Jesus—and a clever one it was. If Jesus affirmed that they should pay the Roman tax, he would lose the favor of the people who resented Roman rule. If he declared it unnecessary to pay the tax, they could accuse him before the Romans of being an insurrectionist. Either answer would serve their purpose of undermining Jesus’s message. Their flattery was insulting. However, their indifference to truth was the real tragedy. If we want to encounter Jesus and learn from him, we must approach him with a sincere heart.
- Bring Me a Denarius: Hypocrites are often guilty of the very thing for which they blame others. Jesus asked for a denarius, a Roman coin. He had none; they did. Carrying a regime’s currency is an implicit sign of support, even if begrudgingly. The Pharisees and the Herodians did not like the Romans; however, they did like the power the Romans allowed them to retain. Jesus was a threat to their moral authority, and thus ultimately to their power. That is why they wanted to be rid of him; hence their clever trap. Eventually, they would even cry, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Conversely, Jesus in his poverty showed neither a dependence upon nor a fear of the Romans. He accepted the generosity and support of others, such as the holy women who provided for him, but his focus was elsewhere (Luke 8:3). He even went so far as to forget to eat as long as he fulfilled his mission; that is, providing “food” of which the apostles knew not (John 4:32).
- Repay to Caesar What Belongs to Caesar: Our Lord’s answer to his adversaries not only brilliantly foiled their clever trap, but it also laid the foundation for the Church’s relationship with temporal powers. The Church, following the model of her Lord, has always taught us to obey legitimate civil authority (Romans 13:1-3). We should even pray for those in power (1 Timothy 2:2). However, obedience to God must always take precedence over civil law when the two are in conflict. That is why, when commanded by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, St. Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In the encyclical “God is Love,” Pope Benedict XVI teaches that Catholic social doctrine does not seek power over the state; rather, it seeks to contribute to society’s ethical formation (cf. n. 28). The Church does not so much seek to overthrow Caesar as to convert him from within.
Conversing with Christ: Lord Jesus Christ, help me to approach you repeatedly with a sincere heart. May I confess my sins to receive your mercy, and may I implore your help to receive your grace. Also, help me to be a good citizen who honestly and responsibly fulfills my civic duties. Let me remember that to serve my country well, I must first obey you. Help me to love my country and community while keeping my heart firmly rooted in heaven.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will pray for the political leaders of my country.
For Further Reflection: Read the “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” (Ratzinger, CDF).
Written by Fr. John Bullock, LC.