In today’s gospel we find two questions: one put to Christ by the Pharisees, and the other put by him to them.
The Pharisees’ question concerns this world alone, while Christ’s has an entirely heavenly and other-worldly sense. Their question derived from profound ignorance and perversity; his stemmed from perfect wisdom and goodness.
“Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
“Caesar’s,” they reply.
“Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
To each, he says, must be given what belongs to him. This, surely, is a judgment full of heavenly wisdom and instruction. For it teaches that authority is twofold, having an earthly and human aspect, and a heavenly and divine aspect. It teaches that we owe a twofold duty of obedience: to human laws and to the law of God. The coin bearing Caesar’s likeness and inscription must be given to Caesar, and the one stamped with the divine image and likeness must be given to God. “We bear the imprint of your glorious face, O Lord.”
We are made in the “image and likeness of God.” So you, O Christian, because you are a human being, are God’s tribute money—a little coin bearing the image and likeness of the divine emperor. Therefore with Christ I ask, “whose likeness and inscription is this?” Your answer is, God’s. To which I reply, Then why not give God what belongs to him?
If we really want to be God’s image, we must be like Christ, for his is the image of God’s goodness and “the perfect copy of his nature,” and God “foreordained that those he has chosen should take on a likeness to his son.” Christ undoubtedly gave Caesar what was Caesar’s and God what was God’s. He fulfilled to perfection the precepts of both tablets of the law, becoming “obedient unto death, even death on a cross,” and he was most highly endowed, both inwardly and outwardly, with every virtue.
In today’s Gospel the reply, most wise and discreet, by which Christ sidestepped his enemies’ trap shows his great prudence. His teaching that each must be given what belongs to him, and also the example he gave by being willing to pay the temple tax and giving a shekel for himself and Peter, shows his justice. His declaring it to be a duty to pay taxes to Caesar, openly teaching the truth without fear of the Jews who would be offended, shows his fortitude. For this is God’s way, of which Christ is the authentic teacher.
Those therefore who resemble Christ in their lives, conduct, and practice of the virtues, they are the ones who truly manifest the divine image; for the way to recover this image is by being absolutely just. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”; that is, give each what belongs to him.
St Lawrence of Brindisi