When Caesar and God Collide
They questioned him, saying, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach correctly, and you are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But he detected their trickery and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” And he said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Luke 20:21-25
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
Into the life of each Christian comes a moment of truth ─ a moment when Caesar and God collide; when some demand of Caesar is perceived by us to be in conflict with the Gospel; a moment when we are called on to make a choice and, if need be, to pay for that choice with a great price.
We are citizens of two worlds. Our first and foremost responsibility is to God — to live and act in accordance with the Gospel. But we also have a responsibility to the lawful authority of the land in which we live. That first responsibility, the one we have to God, is quite clear. Jesus made it simple: we must love God with our whole heart, and love others as we love ourselves. But that other responsibility, the one we have to lawful authority, is not always so clear.
We must constantly weigh our responsibility to Caesar against our responsibility to God. When that which Caesar demands conflicts with the Gospel, there really is no contest — we must go with God. But sometimes it costs; and that cost can be high.
I’d like to tell you about two people, two of my heroes. They were good Christians and good citizens. Each had a moment of truth; and each chose the Gospel over Caesar.
Saint Thomas Moore was a man for all seasons; a husband, father of four, literary scholar and eminent lawyer. He was also a powerful political administrator in the 16th century as he held the job of Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. Thomas was an intensely spiritual person who took the Gospel seriously.
King Henry asked Thomas to support his divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. He also asked that Thomas support separating the English Church from Rome. Thomas chose his responsibility to God over his responsibility to Caesar. He resigned his position as Chancellor. As a consequence, Thomas was ripped away from his family and imprisoned in the Tower of London by the vindictive king. When he refused to reconsider his decision, his estate was confiscated, and he was beheaded in front of his family.
Thomas’ moment of truth came with a high price tag, not just for him but for his family as well. Yet, he chose the Gospel over Caesar and gave to God the things that are God’s.
Viola Liuzzo was someone many of us could relate to. A Detroit housewife and mother of five children in the 1960s. She spent her days chauffeuring her kids back and forth to school, shopping in the supermarket and doing a mountain of endless washes.
One night she was watching the news on TV and saw the evil of segregation and racial injustice up close. She watched this though the lens of the Gospel. She cradled her five children as she tucked them into bed and kissed her husband goodbye. With the family station wagon she set out for Montgomery, Alabama to participate in a non-violent civil rights demonstration in defiance of the laws of a racist governor.
Mrs. Liuzzo joined hands with Black and white citizens, with priests, rabbis, ministers, and nuns to stand up to Caesar. Local members of the Ku Klux Klan shouted obscenities and threatened the lives of the marchers. After the march she volunteered to drive Black citizens safely back to their homes in Selma. During one of those rides, a pick-up truck filled with men from the Klan pulled up alongside her station wagon. With a shotgun they took her life.
Viola Liuzzo’s moment of truth, like Thomas Moore’s, came with a very high price tag indeed, not just for her but for her family as well. Yet she chose the Gospel over Caesar and she gave to God the things that are God’s.
While the circumstances of our lives may not be as dramatic, we are, nonetheless, faced with choices between God and Caesar — moments of truth when the demands of our government, our community, or our employer conflict with the Gospel.
May each of us have the faith and the courage of Thomas Moore and Viola Liuzzo when we face our own personal moments of truth.