Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost—13 November A.D. 2011

“Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s....”[1]

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

    In today’s Gospel the Pharisees join with the disciples of King Herod in an attempt to entrap our Lord with a question that could not be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” answer.  It was somewhat like asking a man if he was still beating his wife—the question seems to demand a “yes” or a “no,” but either answer is embarrassing.  The Herodians considered Cæsar to be the legitimate ruler, because he was the one who appointed King Herod as the local ruler.  The Pharisees considered Cæsar as nothing more than an invader—in fact, a former ally who had broken his word to render mutual assistance.[3]  If our Lord answered “yes” or “no” to the question about rendering the tribute to Cæsar, either the Pharisees would accuse Him of being a traitor to Israel, or the Herodians would denounce Him to Cæsar for preaching sedition.

    Our Lord’s answer to the question was to side step it.  The Romans minted special coins for commerce in Israel, usually with pictures of plants and flowers, instead of an image of a man or an animal, which the Jews would have considered idolatrous.  But the coin used to pay tribute had to be the standard coin of the Empire, with Cæsar’s image on it.  Our Lord could distinguish between paying Cæsar with coins bearing his image, and all other payments with coins that did not.

    It is one of those great omissions of history that the Pharisees didn’t press Him a little further to find out just what exactly was due to Cæsar—what did Cæsar have a right to collect taxes for, and what did he not.  (This omission is almost as frustrating as Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?” and immediately walking out of the room before our Lord could answer.)[4]

    As I have mentioned before, legitimate governments are those that govern in close accord with the Natural Moral Law, even if they are run by pagans.  Cæsar’s right to collect taxes would then be determined by whether or not he used them for purposes that satisfied the Natural Law.

    Like most governments, Cæsar’s was what modern people would call a “mixed bag.”  Some of what the Romans did was very good, and some was very bad.  For about 207 years around the time of Christ (27 BC to 180 AD), the Mediterranean world enjoyed a period of relative peace, coupled with minimal military expansion of the Empire—the pax Romana.  People enjoyed a period of commerce and prosperity, the average standard of living improved, and the people were delivered from the twin fears of invasion and starvation.  Certainly, Cæsar deserved something for his peace keeping efforts.

    An earlier Cæsar had devised the plan to keep the common people from taking an interest in government by giving them “bread and circuses.”[5]  The Roman citizen was given the idea that, just because he was a citizen, he had the right to be fed and entertained.  Clearly, having someone else feed and entertain you is not a right conferred by the Natural Moral Law!  But worse, since Cæsar grew no grain, and baked no bread, he had to take these things by force from those who did.  And the Roman idea of entertainment at the “circus” was the violent combat of the gladiatorial games—usually captured slaves who were made to fight with other slaves, wild animals, and condemned criminals.  So the “bread and circuses” of the Cæsars amounted to theft, murder, and mayhem—things condemned by the Natural Law, and not legitimate reasons for exacting tribute from the subjects of the Empire.

    The famed Roman roads seem to fall somewhere in between.  The roads began to be constructed about 500 BC.  The roads covered thousands of miles, many of them excellently paved.  They were open to animal, vehicle, and pedestrian traffic. They were good in that they facilitated commerce with reliable transportation routes—but they also carried the troops to conquer other peoples, and to take their grain and their bread, and their silver and gold.  It is hard to make a judgment as to whether or not Cæsar had a right to receive tribute for these roads—practical decisions in the real world are often difficult to make, and required an informed citizenry with a properly informed conscience.

    Cæsar made alliances with some of the Barbarian tribes, allowing them to live in the Empire, often in exchange for lands and for keeping other tribes out of the Empire.  These alliances were fleeting, for in a few centuries the flood of peoples would become too great, and the unwelcomed would push the welcomed deeper into the heart of Rome.  Resistance by Roman citizens was weak, for they had grown accustomed to being protected by the welcomed Barbarians, and had grown fat and lazy with the bread and the circuses.  Cæsar’s “entangling alliances” were no good reason for his collecting tribute.[6]

    I am sure that we could examine many more aspects of Roman government under the Cæsars, and could consider whether or not they were legitimate functions of government under the Natural Moral Law, but my point in asking the question, “What is to be rendered to Cæsar?” is not an exercise in history.  Rather, it is intended to make all of us aware of the need to ask the same question about those who govern us.  What is appropriate to render unto our local, State, and federal Cæsars?

    In order to answer this question it is necessary to have an informed citizenry with a properly informed conscience.  We are at an important moment in history—Church and civil governments are in crisis.  The decisions made in the next few months and years will determine the future of the Church and the nations, and must be made by informed people with correctly informed consciences.

    Our Lord did not tell us exactly what is to be rendered unto Cæsar.  He left us with the obligation of determining that for ourselves.  To do that, we must seek to understand the Natural Moral Law, to know what is going on in the Church and the world, and to acquaint ourselves with the records of those running for public office.  Onlt that way can we correctly “render unto Cæsar that which is Cæsar’s.


[3]   Cf 1 Machabees viii: 19-27

[5]   “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”   (Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81)

[6]   The phrase “entangling alliances” is Thomas Jefferson’s; from his inaugural speech

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