There are three reasons why we ask other people questions. One, we ask questions to seek information, direction, or knowledge we do not possess. An example is when a student asks her teacher how she came up with the answer to an algebraic problem. We could say this is a positive use of questions; a person is seeking the expertise of another to become enlightened.
A second type of question is asking for some object we wish to have. Can you pass me the salt? The third and final type of question has nothing to do with acquiring knowledge or something we do not have but is used to catch a person in a trap. This question is often used to entrap someone into exposing a lie or contradiction. Lawyers and law enforcement use this type of questioning quite frequently.
It is the accusatory question that the Pharisees in today’s Gospel bring to our Lord. The Gospel scene is filled with diverse characters. Along with the Pharisees, the leaders of the religious establishment were the Herodians, those who supported the civil authority of the time. The Herodians begin the exchange with their patronizing comment to Jesus. Remember, the Herodians do not believe Jesus is the Son of God, so they refer to him only as a truthful man. “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.”
Then, the real reason for the exchange is revealed. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” The question posed is an attempt to entrap Jesus; he knows the question was with malice and calls them hypocrites. A simple yes or no would have caused one of the two parties to attack him. An affirmation to require a person to pay tax to Caesar would have caused the Pharisees to accuse him of collaborating with the Romans. A negative response would indict Jesus for disobedience to the occupying Roman authorities and the law—quite a conundrum.
Jesus masterfully eludes the trap of both parties by asking for a Roman coin. Jesus then asks who the inscription is on the coin. The parties reply, “Caesar.” Jesus tells them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus invokes from his response a question of our own. “What is Caesar’s and what is God’s? In a world steeped in secularism, the answer can be pretty disturbing. The question is not meant to be an entrapping inquiry but one that forces us to examine our conscience. Undoubtedly, we continually give to Caesar through these many taxes imposed upon us, even if those taxes are spent on programs contrary to our moral beliefs. However, Vatican II tells us that the Christian has the “obligation of rendering to the state whatever material and personal services are required for the common good.” And some of those taxes are for the common good. The first part of our question is answered.
The next question is admittedly much more difficult by reflecting on our obligation to give God what is rightfully his because God does not require monetary payments but a desire for us to love and worship him. In a humanistic culture, the notion of worship is warped and often manifests in adoring things or events that do not deserve our worship but are adored.
The autumn football ritual is an excellent example of not giving what God is due. Some fans of the sport spend the better part of Sunday morning and afternoon dedicated to the sport and find they would instead give homage to the game than attend Mass. Even when it is not football season, some still find reasons not to worship and spend their energies on “paying” themselves. It doesn’t matter whether the activity is entertainment or domestic tasks that are not absolutely necessary. God has not been given his due, but Caesar’s demands seem to be consistently met.
For those who religiously go to Mass on Sunday to worship God and receive his Body, the question now extends to the days of the week we are not obligated to attend. On these days, do we give God our obedience and spend time in prayer? Or are those days more dedicated to paying ourselves our time and treasures? Some people are truly busy and have responsibilities that do not leave much time to do anything but satisfy Caesar and familial relational obligations such as raising children or caregiving for an ill relative. But they, too, can give to God what is God’s.
Instead of falling into despair for the lack of time for God, we can learn from one of his most charitable saints, St. Vincent De Paul. St. Vincent teaches his followers an important lesson we can all benefit from: “If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer… God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out.”
Regardless of how we do it, we must daily give to God what is God’s and not only to Caesar.