The old sensibility called the Divine Right of Kings–that rulers can be instruments of God’s grace IF they choose to cooperate with it, is older than the Bible. Cyrus of Persia did cooperate with God (knowingly or unknowingly). Having conquered the Babylonians, he took over the Middle East Empire and allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland, which new Emperors rarely, if ever, did. Rulers usually did not allow people to stay or return to their homelands in fear that once gathered together, they were more likely to revolt.
With Cyrus of Persia one of the rare exceptions, what was believed to be “The Divine Right of Kings” was used and abused through the centuries until finally someone shouted, “The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!” meaning that all too often, rulers and people in authority misuse their power. Read the headlines in any century, any decade and there’s plenty proof. Taking Presidents and statesmen, explorers and rulers off their pedestals has been the work of historians for centuries, but when people attempt to do this in a literal way, controversy ensues. And, although there are legitimate concerns on all sides of the issue, as always, the Gospels insist on a bigger picture: God is GOD; we are not. People of faith are expected to put God above all others, to carefully consider God’s Will as we make our own decisions. When people do well, praise them! But, in our hearts, praise God, too–for nothing good is accomplished except from God. We must believe that. Therefore, respect positive human achievements while humbly acknowledging all human beings are flawed. Perhaps all our monuments and tributes need to reflect that. Meanwhile, Jesus tells us: be responsible with the things of this world for in doing so we get good practice in being responsible to heaven.
We should all know by now that the primary meaning of “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” is NOT about the separation of Church and State. For too long, Jesus’ statement has been misused to excuse a divorce between moral behavior at home and moral behavior in government and elsewhere. If God is truly the center of our lives, then “repaying to Caesar” must mean taking on secular responsibilities to give God Glory, because, as the Bible and History teach us, all “Caesars” –be they princes or politicians, business executives or priests of bishops—fall short of leading fully God-centered lives and making consistent God-centered decisions.
To approach misunderstood passages of Scripture such as this one, it is always best to put them in conversations with other passages of Scripture that support and elucidate their meaning. Let’s look at these.
Luke 12: 29-32
As for you, do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not worry anymore. 30 All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides. 32 Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
In other words, disciples of Jesus must view our material needs and their political implications as SECONDARY to Love 0f God, the dignity of each human person as Child of God, and love of neighbor. God comes first! Discipleship in Jesus comes FIRST! Attentiveness to the Holy Spirit comes first! Then we have a taste of the Kingdom and everything else falls into place—a world with less hostility, less anxiety because all decisions are made for mutual benefit of all rather than advancement for some at the expense of others.
Here’s another passage: Luke 16: 8 to 10
“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.[e] 9 I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,[f] so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 [g]The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.
Jesus speaks here of money in its most negative aspect: it’s all “dishonest,” in the sense of the illusions it perpetuates: delusions of grandeur, of inflated self-importance, celebrity, fame—all these are fleeting, transitory and distractions from the TRUTH of why we are here. The purpose and meaning of life: each person, each family, each community is responsible to GOD. Of course, it is important to be RESPONSIBLE for our worldly doings. We must apply our ethics to our material consumption, and our politics. Indeed, wealth can be and may be used for good purposes that extend the kingdom of God, and when it does, we find signs of HEAVEN in the here and now. But clearly in these times, more signs are needed to empower us to receive the blessings of eternity. When few signs exist on earth, Heaven becomes disconnected, divorced from the real world in our daily consciousness; we become lax in our attentiveness to the Communion of Saints; Intercessory Prayer feels like a waste of our time—and that’s never a good thing. We must remind ourselves that Jesus’ insisted that “the Kingdom of God is at Hand” on earth because it is intimately connected to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The last Scripture passage that I will address, (there are many more, but, well, I leave you to look them up) is the segment when Jesus focuses on the limitations of our pride in material and political accomplishments over spiritual ones:
Luke 21: 5 [b]While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, he said, 6 “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
I.e. all human accomplishments are transitory. What remains for us are remnants of the past that must be studied and scrutinized if our histories are to add to Wisdom for the present and future. We must let our Faith determine what was truly GOOD, what was GOD-CENTERED and what was not. We don’t often appropriate our histories in that way, but the Gospel insists that we do, addressing everything about our societies that create suffering, pain and disillusionment—and insisting on ways and means that accentuate improvements, redemption and HOPE instead.
If Jesus’ wisdom isn’t enough for us today (and alas, it often isn’t for so many), we can tell them they will find parallels in the Hebrew Prophets, in the writings of St. Paul and the Saints and those of many secular scholars, writers and poets from one century to the next.
Reflecting on these scriptures, I recalled a poem most of us were assigned to study in high school: Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
We can spend a lot of time and emotional energy arguing about statues, but the truth is they are all going to fall and decay like the ruins of Rome, Ephesus and Pompeii. That we’re made for eternity is the crux of the matter. We were made for God. And that’s the only proper tribute to anyone—the degree he or she manifest their Love of God and Neighbor. Jesus was always aware of GOD, always attentive to the Spirit and asks nothing more of his disciples that you and I do the same. GOD is everlasting who graciously offers to share eternity with the Saints. So, attend to Caesar, engage in political thought and debate, participate in community events, in commerce, economics and industry for such are the blessings of work and proper use of our God-given talents and creativities, but engage in these always with an eye on the Love of God and neighbor. Stay in communion with Christ Jesus – for He Alone is more eternal than Spring itself.