The answer Jesus gives to those attempting to entrap Him is memorable throughout the ages. It has been used so often to justify our allegiance to government in various forms and yet half of His answer seems to go unnoticed. Yes, Jesus tells us quite explicitly to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” but have we ever considered what belongs to Caesar? We should also notice that Jesus uses the word repay, which seems to imply that we owe something to Caesar for things he has provided for us. What things?
The image of Caesar should invoke the image of our own government, its participants and leaders. The things which Caesar provided are the same today: order, protection from enemies and an infrastructure to help us live our lives and conduct business, to name just a few. These incur a cost for which we are obligated to repay, as Jesus so matter-of-factly points out. There are, however, things which government cannot provide but for which it is too often credited. Jesus makes this distinction with the second part of His answer when He adds: “… and to God what belongs to God.”
Today’s first reading from Isaiah is very important to the theme of the Gospel but its background is not well known among most of us. Cyrus was the Persian king who invaded and conquered Babylon during the exile and captivity of the Chosen People. Notice how Isaiah refers to Cyrus: the Lord said to His anointed. This is not a religious anointing. Cyrus was not part of the Chosen People, but God chooses him and designates him to carry out His Will: free the Israelites and let them return home to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. If we listen closely to Isaiah we hear him reminding us that God is in charge; He is in control, not Cyrus. He, not Cyrus, provides Freedom. Today, our own constitution recognizes freedom as an unalienable right, endowed by our Creator.
Our imperfect understanding of our imperfect condition can become confused over this matter. Freedom and control do not belong to Cyrus, Caesar or any other government even though they too often try to function as if they owned both. God is in control; He alone gives Freedom. To freely Trust in Him in our pursuit of happiness is to follow the instruction of Jesus, which He adds in the second part of His response: (repay) to God what belongs to God.