The story is told of Queen Elizabeth, the widow of King Albert I of Belgium who, in 1956, visited the city of Warsaw in Poland. Poland was of course, still dominated by the Communists at the time. A chief of protocol was assigned to accompany the Queen when she went to Mass on Sunday. On the way to the church, the Queen chatted with the official and asked him: “Are you a Catholic?” To which the official replied: “believing, but not practising”. The Queen then responded: “Ah, then in that case you must be a Communist.” To which the official said: “Practising, but not believing”.
One might argue that the official’s heart was in the right place when it came to the thorny issue of the relationship between the Church and the State. The same cannot be said of the officials we hear about in today’s gospel. Our Lord forces them to look into their hearts on this vexing issue of religion and politics, knowing full well that they will find hypocrisy there.
In 1st century Palestine, as it used to be in communist Poland and still is in many other places, the relationship between religion and government was, to say the very least, uneasy. The Jewish people were dominated by a foreign power, the Romans, whose religious practises were often at odds with the Jewish faith, and the Jews were regularly forced into situations that threatened to compromise their beliefs.
The Pharisees and the Herodians were hoping to impale Our Lord on the horns of this church-state dilemma, but these religious leaders ended up getting gored themselves by Our Lord’s sharp reply.
Despite the separation of church and state in our lives today, Our Lord still forces us to look inside our hearts on the church-state issue because it’s so easy to get lost in the abstractions of the religion-and-politics debate.
Our Lord asks us today: “Where do you stand in terms of your own beliefs?” By producing the coin that Our Lord demanded, the Pharisees immediately revealed their own hypocrisy; how could they possibly carry about with them the very graven image that they professed to find so abhorrent? An interesting little point is that Our Lord doesn’t have a Roman coin and so he has to ask for one. He has already distanced himself from the currency and also the tax. He asks: ‘Let me see the coin you pay the tax with.’ Immediately the Pharisees are wrong footed, and by presenting him with the coin they acknowledge that they actually do pay the tax.
Now, a case could be made that the memorable “Render to Caesar” statement of Our Lord doesn’t really solve anything. The demonstration with the coin acknowledges the existence of political power, but it doesn’t say whether Caesar has a right to rule. It’s also the case that this saying of Our Lord doesn’t help to sort out what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. But it does compel us to ask whether there is anything in our lives that doesn’t belong to God. Once we have that priority properly in place, the rest will take care of itself.
Now it could be argued that if all of God’s people were faithful and honest, it wouldn’t matter who controlled the political realm. We might think of that official from Warsaw and remember that a whole generation of people in Eastern Europe was forced to ‘go underground’ in order to preserve and practice their faith. And in spite of a political system that was bent on destroying religion, their convictions and their sacrifice kept the flame of faith very much alive.
We might also point to the example of Cyrus mentioned in the first reading. He was a political leader who, though not a Jew, became God’s instrument in the restoration of Israel. And so, what is the lesson to be learned from this; well, if the people keep faith, it doesn’t matter who is in charge of the political system.
For the Christian, there can only be one sovereign, one Lord, one God. A guest at a reception told the American President Abraham Lincoln that back in his home state people said that the welfare of the nation depended on God and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln responded: “You are half right!” As a politician Lincoln was pragmatic and tough, but as a Christian, he knew that whatever power he had as a leader derived ultimately from the providence of Almighty God.
And so, the lesson the Church asks us to learn today is really quite simple: “No one can serve two masters.”