Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

24 October A.D. 2010

Coin of Tribute in Circulation in Palestine at the Time of Our Lord
Cæsar Augustus (27 BC-14 AD)

Ordinary of the Mass
Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's.”[1]

    As an occupying force, the Romans were not too popular among the Jews at the time of our Lord.  They had been in Palestine since the invasion by Gnaeus Pompey in 64 B.C.  The Romans had a treaty with the Jews, made during the time of the Machabees, and had been invited  by a Jewish faction that sought to take over the kingship.[2]  Instead, the Romans abolished the kingship, appointed administrators, and annexed Palestine in 6 BC.  Among the most famous of the administrators was Herod the Great, and Idumaen who ruled as king in the territory around Jerusalem.  It was under Herod that the Temple was rebuilt.  Herod was an inflexible ruler, who murdered even members of his own family.  The Romans removed him, replacing him with his son Herod Antipas in Galilee, and Pontius Pilate in Judea.

    Roman Rule was relatively benevolent.  It established the rule of law, brought security against external invaders, opened up the entire Mediterranean as an area of prosperous trade, produced a relatively stable money, and generally respected the right of the Jews to practice their religion.  Judea had a degree of civil autonomy, with its Sanhedrin functioning as a sort of Jewish municipal government.  Nonetheless, the Romans were outsiders—pagan gentiles, whose presence chafed most of the Jewish population.  Only a few years after Christ there would be an unsuccessful rebellion—an attempt to drive out the Romans that ended with the scattering of the Jewish nation.

    In asking our Lord about the legality of giving tribute to Caesar, the Pharisees were hoping to trap Him into making a statement against the government, or to insult the common Jewish people who had been flocking to Jesus.  The Herodians were invited, as Herod was an appointee of the Romans, who could be counted on to inform the Romans if Jesus disparaged the government.

    The image on the coin of tribute was that of Caesar.  Palestine had special coins for normal business—coins without pictures of men or animals, both of which the Jews viewed as idolatrous.  But Caesar's coin would be used in official business with Rome.  By taking advantage of this difference between the coins, our Lord seems to be evading the question brought by the Pharisees, instead of actually discussing the legitimacy of the Roman government, and whether or not it was permissible to pay that government's taxes.  He was, essentially, beating them at their own game.

    Our Lord had strangely little to say about the Romans, in spite of their nearly ubiquitous presence.  He did seem to recognize the authority of the Roman government, which he did in a negative sort of way when Pontius Pilate claimed the power to execute or release Him:  “Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above,” implying that Pilate had such power, and had somehow acquired it from God.[3]  But our Lord says little or nothing else on the matter.

    To understand Christian teaching on the legitimacy and source of government power, we have to consult Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans.[4]  Keep in mind that in Paul's time, both the Jewish and the Roman governments were beginning to persecute Christians.  Nonetheless, Paul says:  [1] “Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God. [2] Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.”

    Now, clearly, Paul could not mean that God commands any and every thing that the civil authority commands.  Precisely, it is the other way around.  The civil authority has been placed to see to it that God's ordinances are carried out among the peoples of the nation.  There is such a thing as the Natural Moral Law.  Human beings are capable of realizing that society cannot function if the rights of its members are regularly violated or threatened with violation.  In creating man, God gives each individual the right to the things that are necessary for his survival and his salvation.  The function of civil society is to see to it that those rights are not violated.

    Centuries later, Saint Thomas Aquinas would expand this teaching of Saint Paul, suggesting that even pagan governments could be legitimate if they sought to protect their citizens with the Natural Law.[5]

    Saint Thomas was something of a monarchist, not because he thought monarchies were more legitimate than other forms of government, but because they were more efficient.  Presumably the monarch will not be allowed by the people to become a tyrant, but he must still exercise coercive power to enforce the Natural Moral Law.  As Saint Paul wrote:  [3] “Princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise.... [4] for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.”

    This is, indeed, the difference between the king and the tyrant, between the republic and the regime.  The former—both the king and the republic—dispense God's Law and God's Justice, protecting the God given rights of each individual from those more numerous and more powerful.  The latter—both the tyrant and the regime—take away those rights, following some course at variance with God's Law.

    The system is of less importance than the product which it produces.  Particularly as we approach the national election, we must ask ourselves about the legitimacy of our own nation's government.  We must ask, to use the American idiom, whether it serves best to protect the unalienable rights with which all men are endowed by their Creator, or whether it serves best to deny those rights and the laws “of nature and nature's God”?

    The saintly Pope Leo XIII put it nicely in perspective:

    22. ... Legislation is the work of men invested with power, and who, in fact, govern the nation; therefore it follows that, practically, the quality of the laws depends more upon the quality of these men than upon the power. The laws will be good or bad accordingly as the minds of the legislators are imbued with good or bad principles, and as they allow themselves to be guided by political prudence or by passion.[6]

    So then, is it lawful to render unto Caesar?  Together with our Lord, Saint Paul said that it is:  “[7] Render therefore to all men their dues. Tribute, to whom tribute is due….”

    But remember that the legitimate ruler is the one whose laws most closely reflect God’s Natural Law.  So make the effort between now and November 2nd to find out what the candidates promise to do, and be sure to vote for good people, legislators imbued with good principles, guided by prudence and not passion.

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's.”





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