What Belongs to God

By Mary Flick, CSJ

“That’s mine!” How often I have made this reality known in my life. As a child, I was quick to declare this when my sister absconded with my favorite doll – or my baseball glove. Still today, I think of that childhood cry – even if I don’t say it – whenever someone uses my favorite coffee mug!

In today’s readings, we hear God say, “That’s mine!” – or rather, “You’re mine!” In the first reading, we find Cyrus, the most unlikely of heroes, allowing the Israelites to return home from exile in Babylon. However, Isaiah reveals the true source of this political benevolence is God, who has called Cyrus by name and given him a title, “Though you knew me not.” God works in mysterious ways. Yes, even Cyrus, a non-Jew and pagan military victor, belongs to God.

In today’s gospel, the Pharisees and Herodians, arch enemies, band together to test Jesus by asking him about the census tax, that accursed Roman obligation for the Jews. To say it was unlawful to pay the tax would make Jesus guilty of sedition. To say it was lawful to pay the tax would leave him discredited in the eyes of the Jews, for its payment to an earthly king validated his kingship and insulted God, the only King of the Jewish people. Whichever way Jesus answered opened him to trouble!

Creatively, Jesus answers their question – and invites them, and us, to much more. Coinage was the sign of kingship, since the king had his image struck on the coins as soon as he came to the throne. And the coinage was held to be the property of the king whose image it bore. Jesus astutely tells the Jewish and Roman leaders to give to Caesar what belongs to him. Then he goes further: “and to God what belongs to God.” Obey the civil regulations, give to Caesar what is his – and give to God what is God’s: one’s undivided heart.

There is a double citizenship for Jesus’ followers, in the realms of the secular and the spiritual. But the boundaries must be carefully discerned. Such discernment can happen in the life of a Christian who possesses the qualities Paul cites in his letter to the Thessalonians: grace, peace, thanksgiving, faith, love, endurance, hope. Within this realm, boundaries become clear. Ultimately, we realize there are no boundaries for God. God supersedes all secular laws and rulers. All is one, all is God’s in the Christian life, if we live it authentically and creatively.