Vatican Radio website:
A time for Christians to engage with the world
“Render unto Caesar
what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” was the response of
Jesus when asked about paying taxes. His questioners, of course, were laying a
trap for him. They wanted to force him to take sides in the highly-charged
political debate about Roman rule in the land of Israel. Yet there was more at
stake here: if Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah, then surely he would
oppose the Roman overlords. So the question was calculated to expose him either
as a threat to the regime, or a fraud. Jesus’ answer deftly moves the
argument to a higher plane, gently cautioning against both the politicization of
religion and the deification of temporal power, along with the relentless
pursuit of wealth. His audience needed to be reminded that the Messiah was not
Caesar, and Caesar was not God. The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was of
an altogether higher order. As he told Pontius Pilate, “My kingship is not of
The Christmas stories in the New Testament are intended to
convey a similar message. Jesus was born during a “census of the whole world”
taken by Caesar Augustus, the Emperor renowned for bringing the Pax Romana to
all the lands under Roman rule. Yet this infant, born in an obscure and
far-flung corner of the Empire, was to offer the world a far greater peace,
truly universal in scope and transcending all limitations of space and time.
Jesus is presented to us as King David’s heir, but the liberation he brought
to his people was not about holding hostile armies at bay; it was about
conquering sin and death forever. The birth of Christ challenges us to
reassess our priorities, our values, our very way of life. While Christmas is
undoubtedly a time of great joy, it is also an occasion for deep reflection,
even an examination of conscience. At the end of a year that has meant economic
hardship for many, what can we learn from the humility, the poverty, the
simplicity of the crib scene? Christmas can be the time in which we learn to
read the Gospel, to get to know Jesus not only as the Child in the manger, but
as the one in whom we recognize God made Man.
It is in the Gospel that
Christians find inspiration for their daily lives and their involvement in
worldly affairs – be it in the Houses of Parliament or the Stock Exchange.
Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it. But their
involvement in politics and economics should transcend every form of ideology.
Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of
every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life.
Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a
belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the
weakest and most vulnerable. Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a
conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of
Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life. Christian belief in the
transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting
peace and justice for all.
Because these goals are shared by so many, much
fruitful cooperation is possible between Christians and others. Yet Christians
render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God.
Christians have at times throughout history been unable to comply with demands
made by Caesar. From the Emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian
regimes of the last century, Caesar has tried to take the place of God. When
Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not
because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from
the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny
that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.
In Italy, many
crib scenes feature the ruins of ancient Roman buildings in the background. This
shows that the birth of the child Jesus marks the end of the old order, the
pagan world, in which Caesar’s claims went virtually unchallenged. Now there is
a new king, who relies not on the force of arms, but on the power of love. He
brings hope to all those who, like himself, live on the margins of society. He
brings hope to all who are vulnerable to the changing fortunes of a precarious
world. From the manger, Christ calls us to live as citizens of his heavenly
kingdom, a kingdom that all people of good will can help to build here on