“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21). Very often when we read or hear this passage, we focus on the first half of Jesus’ response: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” No doubt each of us does this already and without a great deal of effort. We pay our taxes in the many different areas they are imposed upon us. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus tells us; this we do, we say, and we happily go about our lives, usually quiet content to forget that Jesus has said more than this.
Repay “to God what belongs to God,” he says. How often do we give this saying of Jesus any thought? What do we have that belongs to God? In reflecting on the first reading today from the prophet Isaiah, we can learn something about these questions. The Lord speaks through Isaiah to Cyrus, King of Persia. To understand the importance of King Cyrus, we must know something first of the history of the Jewish people.
In 586 B.C., the Babylonian armies destroyed all of Israel and Judah. They sacked Jerusalem and even destroyed the great Temple on Mt. Zion. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon then forced the Jewish people to leave Palestine and put then in exile in Babylon. The Jews then lived in exile in Babylon until the rise of the empire of Persia, which grew in power under the reign of King Cyrus.
When Cyrus conquered Babylon he allowed the Jews to return to their homeland in 537 B.C. and even sent with them money from the royal coffers with the explicit order to rebuild their Temple on Mt. Zion. With the Temple holding the central place in the Jewish faith, the Jews quickly hailed Cyrus as the “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1) and knew that God had used the Persians to conquer the Babylonians.
Cyrus had become, in just a few short years, the most powerful king in the land, powerful enough to tear down the mighty Babylonian Empire and inaugurate his own Persian Empire. With so much power and authority in his possession, with so many great victories and territories, it would be easy for Cyrus to assume and claim that he himself had done all of this, that he himself had won the battles with his own strength and power, but the Lord clearly says to him that this is not the case. We are not so very different than Cyrus in this matter.
“Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred: For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not” (Isaiah 45:). It is the Lord himself who guided Cyrus’ armies and arranged for his victories; it was the Lord who gave to Cyrus the idea to wage war with Babylon and not Cyrus himself. The hand of the Lord guided each of Cyrus’ great achievements and accomplishements. None of this belonged to the King of Persia but to the Lord God.
Today, then, the Psalmist sings to Cyrus even as he sings to us, “Give the Lord glory and honor. Tell his glory among the nations; among all peoples, his wondrous deeds” (Psalm 96:1, 3). Everything that Cyrus owns, everything that he has done, belongs to Lord and so Jesus says to him, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
We have now our answer to the question: What do we have that belongs to God? The answer is the same for us as it was for Cyrus: everything. Everything that we have belongs to God, our homes, our cars, our food, our clothing, our children, our parents, our toys, our businesses, our spouses, and even our very lives. All that we have done also belongs to him because he allows us to do everything we do. Everything that exists has come from his hand and so it all belongs to him.
This being the case, then, when Jesus says to us, “repay ‘to God what belongs to God,’” must we then sacrifice everything that we have and bring it here to the altar of God? Must we, like Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, also be willing to sacrifice our children, our parents, and our spouses? Yes, and no.
Yes, we should be willing to offer our children, our parents, and our spouses, even our very selves, to the Lord, because we all belong to him. But no, we do not offer them physically to the Lord, but spiritually. In offering those around us to the Lord we show the depth of our faith and our trust in the Lord. We know that God desires only our good and that “all things work for the good of those who love” him and so we ask the Lord to do with those around us and ourselves as he wishes and as he sees fit (Romans 8:28). We place our will and those around us at his disposal for his purposes. In this way we repay to God what belongs to God.
Sometimes the Lord will ask us to give difficult things back to him. At times he tugs at our hearts to forgive someone who has harmed us; he tugs at our hearts to help a person in need when we do not think we have the time; he tugs at our hearts to be kind and sociable with those society sees as outcasts.
Every aspect of our lives should, in some way, be directed to the service of God and neighbor. St. Paul says to us, “whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). The Lord has given us all things, he has made us stewards over his creation to use the things he has made for our benefit. We should often give thanks to him for his fatherly care for us.
The Psalmist today sings, “Worship the LORD, in holy attire; tremble before him all the earth; say among the nations: the LORD is king” (Psalm 96:9-10). I encourage each of us, then, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi to “Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks to him and serve him with great humility.”