Sunday, October 19, 2014

Homily for 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
29th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Matt 22: 15-21
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
Oct. 19, 2014

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matt 20: 21).

Tribute to Caesar
(Gustave Dore')
I liked the old translation, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”  In any case, that verse is one of the most famous in the NT, and not because it shows Jesus’ cleverness in evading a trap set for him by his enemies.

Rather, it’s famous because of the challenge it presents to Christ’s followers to balance our lives and allegiances between this world and the next, between what St. Augustine identified as the city of man and the city of God, or in common American speech, between State and Church.  Jesus challenges the officials or authorities of both Church and State to know what their responsibilities are and where their limits are; he challenges us citizens of an earthly city who are his followers to give due attention to both God and country.

Thru the course of history, we’ve seen many examples of Caesar, i.e., the State, trying to control every aspect of the life of his citizens, including their consciences.  Recall not only the Roman Empire’s demands that everyone worship the emperor and the gods, but also the religious wars of the 16th century, the Nazis, and Communism.  In May of this year an American tourist in North Korea, James Fowle, left a Bible in a public restroom, apparently intentionally.  He was arrested, charged with anti-State activity, and is awaiting trial and the possibility of a long prison sentence.  In our country, numerous religious institutions—schools, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.—many of them Catholic, but of other denominations as well, have had to sue the Dept. of HHS to defend their rights of conscience against the coercive regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare—regulations that, among other things, seek to define what is religious practice and what isn’t, and to confine religion only to worship in your church building and to catechism class.  Various institutions and individuals are being coerced by city, state, and educational authorities to approve homosexual behavior; the latest example I’ve seen is that the New England Assn. of Schools and Colleges is giving Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts, a year to “review” its policy prohibiting homosexual behavior on campus because it’s sinful behavior.[1]

On the other side, there are both historical and contemporary examples of religious leaders interfering with affairs of state, e.g., Popes attempting to depose secular rulers or Muslims running or trying to run countries by strictly religious rules (the imams in Iran, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the “Islamic State” so much in the news these days).

How do you and I render to Caesar—to the State, to civil society—what is due to it, and to God what is due to him?

To start where today’s gospel starts, we owe the State taxes.  Yes, however painful that is.  Our taxes provide government services, such basic things as trash pick-up and snow-plowing, managing the public airwaves, coordinating air transportation, running the subways.  They pay for police and fire protection and help us cope with natural disasters.  We expect that governments to do something about the Ebola epidemic and not leave it entirely to Doctors Without Borders and missionaries in Africa.  Our taxes paid for the personnel and weapons that saved the world from the Nazis, saved Western Europe from Stalin, and, we demand now, will save the Middle East from the Islamic State.  (Whether our taxes are always wisely and ethically used is a separate question.)

As citizens in a democracy, we have an obligation to vote, to make our voices heard on election day.  Our elections help determine public policies about war and peace, social justice, public health, and all sorts of things that concern the common good.  Voting carries with it an obligation to be informed about the issues and the candidates and any ballot questions that may come up.  It’s unconscionable—sinful, in other words—to vote for someone just because the person belongs to a particular party, is a certain race or nationality, is a certain gender, comes from a certain city or state, or has Hollywood good looks.

It’s also good for us to let public officials know our opinions outside of election time, e.g., by letter-writing or peaceful public protest, or even to be involved in politics or public service.  In making our voices heard on public issues, however, it’s important that we speak the civil language.  We may not promote a certain policy to the general public—whether it’s about abortion, immigration, the environment, or civil rights—because of God’s Law or what the Bible says.  That’s a religious intrusion and doesn’t carry much weight with the U.S. Constitution or the general public.  (How religious leaders address their own congregations is another matter, of course.  Right now I’m telling you what the Gospel requires of you.)

We all have an obligation to contribute to the common good, and not just by paying our taxes and voting.  Do we get involved in our kids’ school?  in some form of youth or civic activity—volunteer work of some sort, like a soup kitchen, Midnite Run, Habitat for Humanity, EMS where that’s done by volunteers, the Red Cross, Scouting, etc.?

Jesus also tells us to render to God what belongs to God.  For us as individuals, that begins with worship, both public (as on Sundays) and private (our daily prayer).  It ought to include regular Scripture reading, an important way of listening to God.

Serving God includes more than prayer, tho.  We need to be involved in our church, our parish, performing service of some sort (greeter, usher, cleaner, council member, helper at socials, catechist, participant in the parish’s outreach to the community, etc.).

Our service to God, our adherence to Christ, is a 7-day responsibility.  We can’t be Christians on Sunday and pagans Monday thru Saturday.  A few weeks ago, a couple of guys in Montana who’d gotten “married” to each other were told by their pastor they could no longer receive Holy Communion; the bishop backed the pastor, but the parish was divided.  One of the men involved told the media, in disbelief, “We didn't think anything would happen.  Church is one thing; civil society is another.”  One Catholic blogger reacted this way:

The logical end of this thinking seems to be that it only matters what happens in Church and then once you step outside the Church (or maybe the parking lot) all bets are off until next Sunday. This is the exact opposite of truth. Christians are given a very specific task to live the gospel, not just for one hour a week on Sunday.

It's the same line of thinking which bring the loud proclamations that the Church doesn't tell me what to do in the bedroom. I've always wondered what other rooms of the house the Church is banished from? According to many, it would seem all of them.[2]

That’s why at the end of Mass we’re often dismissed with lines like “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life” or “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”  That’s why our prayers at Mass often contain lines like today’s:  “Almighty ever-living God, grant that we may always conform our will to yours…” (emphasis added).

A denarius of Tiberius Caesar
emperor during Jesus' public life

Another way of looking at our obligations to God is this.  When the Pharisees presented Jesus with a denarius, what did he ask them?  “Whose image is this?”—the image indicating ownership or title, like a brand on a steer or a corporate logo.  Now look at yourself and the people around you.  Whose image are you and they?   You all remember the verse from Genesis:  “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27).  God’s image is stamped on us.  We belong to him.  To him we have to render our whole lives, our whole selves.  The teaching of Christ, in our case as his disciples, must imbue everything we say and do, wherever and whenever.

God bless you!

      [1] Matthew Archbold, “Christian College Could Lose Accreditation. Guess Why,” National Catholic Register on-line, Oct. 3, 2014:
       [2] Matthew Archbold, “What Happens in Church Stays in Church,” National Catholic Register on-line, Sept. 26, 2014:

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