Recently, a friend of mine was deeply disturbed by a visit to his doctor. He arrived on time for the appointment and took a seat in the reception area. There were several patients waiting for their appointments; all were masked and practicing social distancing. After a few moments, one of those waiting removed his face covering and let out a loud and slushy sneeze.
My friend was incredulous. He said that he couldn’t believe that someone could be so thoughtless and ill-mannered. I responded, “Believe it.” He expected the doctor or the office staff to admonish the sneezy patient about his carelessness. This was a reasonable expectation, but I’m not certain it would be effective. Sneezy’s problem was neither a lack of good manners nor a deficient grasp of morality; rather, the problem was a lack of faith.
Today’s Gospel reading contains the famous quote, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and repay to God what belongs to God.” (Mt. 22:21) This quote concludes the second of five controversies that occur at the end of Jesus’ teaching ministry in the Gospel of Matthew; this controversy was about the issue of authority. “Authority,” in this case, doesn’t refer to legal or civil authority; rather, it refers to the question of who speaks with authority about matters of religious belief and practice.
It’s easy enough to grasp this meaning of the word “authority.” There is an on-going conflict in our country, and around the world, over who speaks with authority about the coronavirus pandemic. Some people say that the coronavirus poses a serious threat to public health. Others say that the threat is overestimated. Still others say that the so-called “pandemic” is a conspiracy devised by outer-space mushroom-people trying to distract us long enough to steal our compost. Personally, my sympathies lie with the mushroom-people; they probably need the compost more than we do.
Who speaks with authority, that is, who is trustworthy? More to the point, how does one identify the person or persons who speak with authority? Everyone can understand the dilemma posed by trying to identify which voice among many is trustworthy.
In today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees and Herodians posed a trick question to Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Mt. 22:17) They were hoping that Jesus would condemn himself either by challenging Roman authority or by supporting a tax that was burdensome to the People. Jesus refused to be trapped by the question; he responded with the well-known quote mentioned above.
Jesus’ pithy response to the Pharisees and Herodians wasn’t really about the census tax; nor was it a statement about the separation of religion and civil government. His response meant, ‘As you already have in your possession the coin bearing Caesar’s image, repay the coin to Caesar who claims ownership of it. You also possess something, however, that bears God’s image; you are obliged, therefore, to return to God your entire existence, because God claims ownership of that.’
The Pharisees and Herodians were embarrassed, not only because Jesus had avoided their trap but because he exposed their dishonesty. They pretended to question the legitimacy of the tax but had, in fact, already acquiesced to the tax by obtaining the coin necessary to pay it. Due to their dishonesty, Jesus judged the Pharisees and Herodians to be lacking the authority to teach about religious matters.
Authority, according to Jesus requires honesty with self and others. Dishonesty, on the other hand, is an indication of a lack of faith. To give oneself permission to do what one denies to others is the sort of duplicity that results from trusting oneself rather than God. According to Jesus, this sort of dishonesty cannot be remedied by imposing a higher moral standard. A lack of morals results from a lack of faith; the only effective remedy for a lack of morals, then, is to inspire faith.
How, then, does one identify legitimate authority? Who is truly trustworthy? How does one identify the person or persons who speak with authority? The answer to these questions is of the same sort as the answer that Jesus gave to the Pharisees and Herodians. He observed their obvious and embarrassing duplicity, and he said, ‘Please be consistent in your judgments and actions. As you have already obtained the coin to make payment to Caesar, make the payment. Remember, however, that you also have a debt to pay to God.’
Everyone owes God a debt of trustworthiness, a debt one cannot pay by allowing dishonesty, irresponsibility, or any other sin to rule one’s life. The debt is paid, not in moral currency but in the currency of faith. On a practical level, when one encounters people like Sneezy, or his companions Grumpy and Dopey, or other unsavory characters like Bully, Envy, Lazy, and Discriminatory, one is obliged to give to God what one owes God, that is, one’s entire existence spent in trusting God and being trustworthy toward one’s neighbor.
There will always be those for whom morality is a matter of expediency; none of them will be convinced to repent in response to a moral argument. Like the Pharisees and Herodians, they’ve already made up their minds about morality. The only witness that can change one’s mind is the witness of an authentic faith.