Misinterpretations of Scripture die hard. After 30 years of teaching the Bible, I still meet people who assure me there once was an extremely narrow gate in Jerusalem called "the eye of the needle," that Jesus was referring to celibate religious and priests when he spoke about "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven," and that by advising His disciples to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" He was dividing the world into realms of church and state. The latter misconception springs not so much from Sunday's Gospel (Mt 22:15-21) as from human nature.
The famous expert on ancient mythology, Mircea Eliade, often reminded us that from the beginning of intelligent life, people partitioned their world between "the sacred and the profane." The sacred is the area in which God works; the profane is everyone else's domain.
Wise persons can tell the two apart. They not only learn how to be comfortable living in the profane, but they also become expert in maneuvering around and in the sacred. They know how to prepare ("have no intercourse with women."), what to wear ("Remove your sandals, this place is holy ground."), and what to say ("If you are called, reply, `Speak Lord, your servant is listening.'").
Yet in many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, and in all the Christian Scriptures, our Sacred Authors wipe out the distinction between sacred and profane. This uncomfortable reality is certainly present in Sunday's readings.
Deutero-Isaiah (45:1,4-6) saw many people walk away shaking their heads while he was delivering the oracle in the first reading. Called to preach deliverance from the Babylonian Exile, the prophet proclaimed that Yahweh was finally freeing the Chosen People from captivity after 50 years. A "messiah" (an anointed one) was being sent to liberate them.
But most people couldn't believe their ears when Deutero-Isaiah announced the messiah's name: Cyrus, the Persian king. How could Yahweh entrust such a sacred mission to an uncircumcised, profane, pagan Gentile? Why would God grasp his right hand, open doors before him and call him by his name? Why would Yahweh go outside His Holy People to find a liberator? The prophet was saying that, to perceive Yahweh's actions correctly, people must read their daily newspapers along with their Sacred Scriptures.
That same insight undergirds all of Jesus' teaching and ministry. So if His words about Caesar and God in the Gospel split the world between God and Caesar, He's contradicting everything He's said and done before.
An understanding of the ancient world's monetary system removes the contradiction. Unlike our modern systems, the civil authority was regarded as owning the realm's money. When Jesus asks to see a Roman coin, then asks about the image and inscription on it, He's assuming both are stamped on the coin as a sign of ownership. He's getting His enemies to admit publicly that the coins they carry around in their pockets belong to Caesar. Once Caesar's ownership is established, Jesus has no fear of being reported to the authorities for giving the "wrong" answer. If they use Caesar's coins and he wants them in taxation, then they should return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
Yet Jesus knows Caesar isn't the issue. His opponents' antagonism springs from His teaching on God's ownership, not Caesar's. The more important statement comes next: "Give to God what is God's." In other words, "Though you won't admit it, everything in the world " including you, Caesar and the coin " belong to God."
For Jesus, a good relationship with God starts from the point at which we abolish the distinction between sacred and profane. The profane no longer exists. Everything and everyone is sacred.
From the second reading (1 Thes 1:1-15), it's clear that Jesus' first followers put that belief into practice. In his introduction to the earliest of Christian writings, Paul reminds his community that they are just as "chosen" as any sacred people of old. Through their "laboring in love," God is working in and through them.
Perhaps the most difficult and important thing we'll ever do is to notice the sacred in ourselves.