Ordinary of the Mass
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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.
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
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.)
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
An earlier Cæsar had devised the plan to keep the
common people from taking an interest in government by giving them “bread
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.
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.