There will always be a temptation for us as humans who live in the world, to see earthly power as the only thing that truly matters. It happens when we think that political action or military force is the only way to truly change things. That temptation also shows up when we start to see the Church, the family Jesus founded, through our own political lenses.
Our readings this weekend teach us that only God is all powerful and that our first allegiance must always be to Him.
Our first reading requires a little history to explain. From about 598 to 587 BC, many of the Jewish people were taken from their home in Judah and forced into exile by their Babylonian conquerors. They were taken to Babylon where they lived as captives for about fifty years. Then Cyrus, the king of Persia who we hear about in the reading, came on the scene. Persia had grown powerful enough to defeat the Babylonians and, in 538 BC, the Jews were allowed to return home.
All of this is the history, but, as God tells Cyrus through the prophet Isaiah, it was He who had the real authority. "It is I who arm you, though you know me not ..." Cyrus may have been a powerful king, but it was only with God's guidance that he gained that power, and God used Cyrus to free His people and continue His plan of salvation.
In Jesus' time, the Jews are under the authority of a new earthly kingdom - the Roman Empire. It's in the context of that oppression, that the Pharisees think they can get Jesus into trouble. By asking him, "should we pay a tax to the Romans or not?" they are hoping to get Jesus to fall into one of two traps: if he says not to pay the tax, he is resisting the Romans who can arrest him. If he says they should pay the tax, he is betraying his people and siding with the enemy.
Jesus' response is a perfect one. He doesn't fall into their trap, but teaches them an important lesson. Their question presumes that it's the earthly kingdoms that matter, but Jesus calls all of us to recognize that the Kingdom of God is the only one that lasts forever.
"Repay to God what belongs to God" goes far beyond taxes. What truly belongs to God? What has he given to us? Our very lives. Everything we are.
We owe God all.
When we are tempted to think on the merely natural level - of governments, power, riches, weapons - we should remind ourselves that the we are part of something supernatural. By the grace of God, we are given a life that goes beyond this world.