Today's Christians are called to live in a very pluralist world, that presents us with huge challenges. Only the grace of God and the depth of our convictions will enable our faith to survive and to thrive in a secular society. But then, throughout history the life of faith has often thriven in spite of unpromising circumstances, whether it was the Jews under the Persian king Cyrus or the early Christians under the harsh rule of imperial Rome
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him, and the gates shall not be closed:
"For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west,
that there is no one besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other."
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that belong to him, and to God what belongs to God."
No sooner did the fall of the Berlin Wall mark the end of the Cold War than another ominous divide came to split our world. This new division is between the Muslim world and what was once the Christian West. The Muslim world has experienced an extraordinary growth in fundamentalism. Many groups have imposed or are seeking to impose the Sharia law of the Koran as the law of the state. European countries feel threatened, particularly France, with its large Muslim population and close historical ties with Algeria. Muslims demands that their schoolgirls be allowed to wear the veil in French public schools. Strange how people so often adopt the attitudes and strategies of their adversaries. Muslim fundamentalism in Arab countries is soon matched by a noticeable "move to the right" in western countries. Now even the more moderate mainstream parties are calling for tighter immigration laws. The signs for the future are ominous, to say the least.
The clash between religion and the secular state is not new. The story of the Christian West is largely a history of this conflict. For the first few centuries of its existence, Christianity was fiercely persecuted by the state, leaving in its wake, a bloody trail of martyrs. All that changed with the conversion of the emperor Constantine. Soon Christianity became the state religion. Now the boot was on the other foot. The high point of the power of religion came at Canossa in the high Middle Ages when an excommunicated emperor knelt in the snow and humbly submitted to a pope to regain his imperial crown. In the Caesar-God contest, that round went decidedly to God. All throughout the Middle Ages the church extended its sphere of influence into the secular domain. With the break-up of Christianity in the sixteenth century the process began to reverse. The French Revolution marked a decisive turning point in favour of the state. Napoleon made the point dramatically, when he took the imperial crown from the pope and placed it himself on his own head. Ever since the state has been clawing back the ground once claimed by the church. And the church has ceded its former influence reluctantly. The boot has changed feet once more.
Today's famous directive from Jesus to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" is a particular challenge to our world right now. While its principle is unambiguous, its application in particular circumstances is quite another matter. The Catholic Church Catechism points out three circumstances where citizens are obliged in conscience to refuse obedience to the civil authorities. They are when the laws are "contrary to the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons and to the teachings of the gospel." The principle is clear; but how to apply it when there is an apparent clash of rights?
The complexity of this issue may render it unsuitable topic for the pulpit. What the preacher can and must do, is advise believers on the obligation of Christian behaviour in all circumstances. No matter how deeply they hold their convictions or how warmly they espouse their causes, they must never resort to violence to impose them. That would also extend to intimidation in all its forms. Military-backed crusades, whether modern or medieval, have no backing from the Gospel. The end never justifies the means. We live, even in Ireland, in a world of pluralism. There are others whose principles and beliefs differ radically from ours. The state must also take cognisance of them. Our only resort is persuasion. Persuasion is always a gentle art. We best persuade by living our Christian lives to the full, remembering always that "the anger of man works not the justice of God."
Before being called by Christ to be one of his twelve Apostles, Saint Matthew was a tax collector operating in a customs house, somewhere in the north of Galilee. Since this profession required that he be able to read, write and especially keep records, these skills he would put to good use in writing his gospel account of Jesus' mission. His literary style, as an evangelist, may be more artificial than that of Saint Luke, but there is no doubt that the gospel excerpt you have just heard is truly dramatic. The question put to Jesus, as to whether it was permissible for Jews to pay tribute to Caesar, gives a clear insight into the minds and strategy of the Pharisees. They were trying to walk Jesus into a political trap that would set him at odds with the Roman authorities, who were the rulers of Israel at that time, or, failing that, would discredit him before his own people. To avoid giving rise to suspicion of their intent, they decided not to get involved personally themselves. They sent some of their disciples along to Christ instead. It is quite likely that the leaders of the Pharisees stayed in the background because they wanted the followers of Herod, the Roman appointed tetrarch of Galilee, to take part also in the plot against Jesus, even though these Herodians, who openly advocated cooperation with the Romans, were normally their most bitter enemies.
The mock tributes to Jesus by this delegation, mention of his honesty, his fearlessness, his disregard for the status of those he encountered, all this flattery coming from people who normally were hostile to him merely highlights the hypocrisy of their praise. Then the trap was sprung: "tell us what is your own opinion? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" Were Christ to answer, "Pay the tax," then he would stand accused of collaboration with the Roman oppressors, and would incur the scorn of ordinary Jews each of whom had to pay a poll tax, from the age of twelve for women and fourteen for men. Were he to advocate non-payment, he could be arrested for sedition by the Roman authorities. Jesus' response, however, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," left them confounded, and they slunk away. But Jesus' reply left the matter in suspense, because it did not touch upon the right of the Romans to rule Israel, nor did it enumerate precisely the things o Caesar or those of God.
The opposing claims of God and state were left to be decided by the informed conscience of each individual, as they still are to this day. But there remains the warning of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, that "no one can serve two masters; one cannot be the slave of both God and wealth" (Mt 6:24). Wealth in early OT times was seen as created by God, and bestowed on patriarchs, kings and leaders who had roles of special responsibility. Later on, wealth ceased to be regarded as a gift from God. "Woe to those who join house to house and field to field, until everywhere belongs to them," Isaiah warned (Is 5:8), and Jesus himself said, "alas for you who are rich; you are having your life of ease now" (Lk 6:24). The world and all its resources were created by God for the benefit of all human beings without exception, and this must usually obtain alongside the right to private property, whether inherited or acquired by personal enterprise. It is the task of government to seek balance between policies that will help the common good of all the citizens. And taxation is still one of the most common means of achieving this.