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Caesar, Cyrus and God

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary time

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Since we were children we have been listening to the first account of creation in the Book of Genesis. We read in chapter 1, verses 26 and 27: “Then God said: “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness… God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.””

We have heard so many times the expression “image and likeness” that it has surely been engraved in our minds and our hearts. To remember it, helps us to better understand what the Lord is telling us in the Gospel proclaimed this Sunday. There is no question that this Biblical expression has a moving and particularly profound meaning in light of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God. Yet perhaps we have very seldom stopped to think and ponder its deepest meaning for our own person and for humanity at large. Human beings have been created with a special capacity for communion with God.

When the pharisees ask the Lord a loaded question about tax payments, the Lord replies that given the fact that the coin bears the image of Caesar, it belongs to him and, therefore, must be returned to him.

Commenting on precisely this passage, an ancient Christian writer, Tertullian, pointed out that just as the image engraved in the coin makes manifest that it belongs to Caesar, so our entire being, everything that is truly human bears the image of the Lord and, therefore, belongs to Him and ought to be ordered towards Him. Just as the Egyptian Pharaoh was under the power of the true God, the God of Israel, so it is with Cyrus, King of Persia, who was also created in the image of God and must serve Him even though he does not know Him, and with everybody else for that matter.

Indeed, there is no dimension of our humanity that does not bear the image of God. Then, following the logic proposed by the Lord in the Gospel, it must return to God, placed at the service of Him to whom it belongs, transformed by His love.

It is interesting to see that to this day there are some who maliciously distort this passage and attempt to turn it into evidence against those Christians who strive to live a consistent life. All too often this passage is invoked to expel Christians from public life or to justify personal infidelities of Christians. Sometimes these words of the Lord are twisted by businessmen or politicians to justify behaviors that are contrary to the Gospel.

There are even some Christians who mistakenly think, in contradiction with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, that the autonomy of temporal matters such as politics or business life demand that one set aside the Gospel. In their view it would simply be an ideal that does not correspond to reality. There are some, who in the pursuit of spurious interests would even participate in shady dealings that effectively make them complicit with actions that are objectively wrong, under the pretense of not wanting to impose a personal perspective or religion to the rest of the world. These are manifest fallacies that more often than not attempt to be legitimized through a malicious distortion of the passage proclaimed this Sunday.

To remember that humanity bears the image of God and must return to Him, will help us avoid any pitfall or distortion of the message of Christ, which is exactly what the pharisees and doctors of the law were trying to accomplish.

In the face of attempts to confine the message of the Gospel to the temples, we must boldly affirm that our faith is existential. It encompasses every single dimension of our existence. Christian morality is not arbitrary, it is grounded in the natural order, the order of things that is, in principle, accessible to reason. When Christians denounce, get organized and fight to change laws, government actions, unjust judicial rulings they are not trampling on the autonomy of temporal reality. On the contrary, an ordering of society that is more just will make society more human and contributes to return to God that which belongs to Him, all of creation. On the other hand, as Pope Francis often reminds us, many of these issues, such as abortion or euthanasia, are not a matter of religion, they deal with fundamental human rights without which there is no other right. Even prudential matters that admit nuances such as monetary and fiscal policy or a business strategy must be properly considered in light of our faith.

It is not true that business and politics are built independently of the natural order and divine law. In fact, only if these are in accord with natural law there will be an authentic progress of the peoples. Only if Caesar acknowledges that there is an order that transcends him, he will govern in a way that promotes justice. Authentic human development is built on the foundation of goodness and truth about the human person. As Pope Benedict XVI stated, humanism without God is inhuman.

St. Thomas More, patron saint of politicians, clearly understood that positing a dichotomy that opposes faith to the autonomy of temporal matters such as politics, science and business life is wrong. That is why, at the supreme moment he proclaimed himself to be a faithful servant of the King, but God’s servant first.

The answer given by Jesus to the malicious question of the pharisees, far from promoting a divorce between ordinary life and faith or justify a compartmentalization of our life, is a call to fidelity and consistency. Whether we are active in politics, business, professional endeavors or in the world of science, when we exercise our rights as citizens or in our family life and privacy, our entire being ought to be ordered to the One whose image we bear because we are the work of his hand, the fruit of his love.

Fr. Roberto M. Cid