Giving to God and to our Nation, 29th Sunday (A), October 19, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
October 19, 2014
Is 45:1.4-6, Ps 96, 1 Thess 1:1-5, Mt 22:15-21

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following text guided the homily: 

Escaping the Catch-22

In today’s Gospel, two groups that were archenemies conspired to try to trap Jesus. Both the Herodians and the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus out of the way, because both felt threatened by him. They decided to ask him a question about which they themselves were constantly in disagreement — whether it was lawful to pay taxes to or support in any way the Roman empire. The Herodians were laxist sycophants, and, regardless of how they personally felt about a foreign power’s ruling over them, decided that if you couldn’t beat the Romans, you should join them. They cooperated with the Romans in almost everything, including taxes. The Pharisees, like most of the Jewish people, deeply resented being dominated by a pagan power, and found utterly repulsive the thought of giving a tribute to a foreign ruler who fancied himself a god. Both groups thought their long-standing disagreement was a perfect catch-22 by which to nail the carpenter from Nazareth.

So they approached Jesus and manifested their mendacity and hypocrisy by a barrage of empty flattery: “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man, teach the way of God with accordance to the truth, show deference to no one, and don’t play favorites.” Then came the question: “Is it lawful to the census tax to Caesar or not?” It was the perfect query, they thought, because no matter how Jesus answered it, they had him. If he failed to respond, he would lose authority by ducking one of the most relevant political questions of the day. If he said “yes,” he would risk losing the affection of the masses, who hated the Romans, hated the emperor, and particularly hated being forced to give him any recognition at all. If he said “no,” then they could turn him over to Pontius Pilate for inciting lawlessness among the people.

But Jesus could not be trapped, and he always brings good out of evil. In answer to their hypocrisy, Jesus pointed the path to true human integrity. In response to their deceitfulness, Jesus gave us a truth to live by, one that is as relevant today as it ever was.

After he had asked to see the coin used for the tax and they brought him one (showing that all of them used the money when it served their purposes!), he queried, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” When they responded, “Caesar’s,” he gave them and us the principle that extends far beyond than the glory days of Rome. “Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” Most of Jesus’ original listeners thought that you couldn’t serve two leaders, both God and Caesar; either you gave to God, they thought, or gave to Caesar. Jesus said it was not necessarily “either… or” but could be and should be “both… and.” We have responsibilities in the social order (what we might call the horizontal plane); we also have responsibilities toward God (the vertical plane). The two should go together. One of our responsibilities toward God is to love our neighbor; and one of the greatest services to our neighbor is the service of the truth that flows from faith in God.

Giving in Response to the Image

Today, we don’t come to entrap Jesus in his speech, but to learn from him the truth that will set us free. And as we ask him the same question about the allegiance we owe to the social order — to our society, our nation, our communities, our city — he turns to us and asks us something. He doesn’t request to see a dollar bill, but rather says to us, “Look in the mirror!” Yes, “Look in the mirror!” Now he asks us: “Whose image is this?” He wants us to recognize that we are made in the image and likeness of God. He turns to us and says, “Then give to God the things that are God’s.” All that we are, all that we have, all our time, our talents, our money, our resources, our health comes from God, are part of our being in his image, and we’re called by him in justice, in wisdom and in love, to give back to God the things that are his.

This was an insight Pope Francis expressed this morning as he beatified his predecessor Pope Paul VI. “Rendering to God the things that are God’s,” Pope Francis said, “means being docile to his will, devoting our lives to him and working for his kingdom of mercy, love and peace. Paul VI truly rendered to God what is God’s by devoting his whole life to the ‘sacred, solemn and grave task of continuing in history and extending on earth the mission of Christ’ [as he preached in his inaugural homily], loving the Church and leading her so that she might be [what he said he hoped she would in his first encyclical on the Church], a ‘loving mother of the whole human family and at the same time the minister of its salvation.’” Giovanni Battista Montini’s beatification today is a fruit of his having rendered to God his life and it was through that give he did so much not just for the Church but for all of society.

Today on this World Mission Sunday we can also apply Jesus’ words to the missionaries who have rendered to God the gift of their life so that they might help others to come to discover who they are in God’s image and how their happiness will come when they open themselves up to receive God’s gift of himself and then give themselves in return out of love for God and others. October 19 is the feast day of the eight Jesuits we call the North American Martyrs, who left France to come to Canada to proclaim the faith among Huron, Mohawk and Iroquois tribes at the clear risk of their life. Their martyrdoms were the culmination of a life of giving themselves to God and at the same time a beautiful testimony of total dedication to the eternal good of even those who would seek to put them to death. The example of missionaries’ putting their whole lives on the live for God and others not only should summon us today to prayer and financial support but also to imitation of their zeal seeking to bring Christ and his Gospel to those we know just like they do to people in far-away lands.

Resolving Conflicts between the Two Orders

But the consideration I would most want to ponder today is what ought to happen when conflicts arise between the two orders of responsibility Jesus describes, to God and to the social order. The concern of the Scribes and Pharisees hasn’t disappeared. What do we do when our duties to God conflict with our duties in the civil order?

The best principle, I think, comes from the example and last words of one of the great saints in the history of civilization. Thomas More was chancellor of England from 1529-1532. He was an extremely gifted man and soon after King Henry VIII had made him second in charge of the British kingdom, he had it running on high octane. He was much respected and admired by the king, by the British people, by the Church, and by many throughout Europe. Eventually, however, Henry discovered that his wife, Catherine of Aragon, was incapable of bearing him a son. So he wanted to dump her and marry another who would be able to provide him an heir — unsurprisingly, he already had someone in mind (Anne Boleyn, with whom he was cheating on the queen). Divorce was unthinkable, because he was a Christian king and Jesus had taught quite clearly that no man could separate what God had joined (Mt 19:10-19). So he did the only thing he could: he appealed to Pope Clement VII to look into whether his marriage to Catherine was valid. If it weren’t, then the Pope could declare it null and void and he would be free to marry Anne Boleyn. After investigating, however, Pope Clement saw no reason that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was invalid and said that he could not give him an annulment. Henry responded by declaring himself the “supreme head of the Church in England,” essentially giving himself an annulment, dismissing Catherine, marrying Anne, and then making every British subject take two oaths. The first was an “oath of succession,” by which one would swear under God that the king’s marriage to Catherine was null, his marriage to Anne was valid, and that his rightful heir would be Anne’s offspring. The second was the “oath of supremacy;” one had to swear that the king, and not Christ through his earthly vicar, the Pope, was the head of the Church.

What would you have done if you were in England in the 1530s? Would you have sworn on God’s holy word that the king, rather than God or the Pope, is Christ’s vicar on earth and make God your witness that Henry’s second marriage was valid rather than adulterous? Or would you have refused and subjected yourself to imprisonment, the impoverishment of your family and even death? Most British Catholics alive then, it’s sad to say, betrayed Christ and took the oaths. Almost every bishop in England joined them. One bishop, St. John Fisher, refused to take the oath and he was killed. St. Thomas More was still chancellor, number two in the realm, but his conscience prevented him from lying before God. He consistently refused to take either of the oaths. Henry took Thomas’ failure to commit as a sign of betrayal and furious. Thomas resigned the chancellorship, his family was reduced to poverty, and those who were trying to kiss up to the king sought ways to harm Thomas. Eventually, the king’s loyalists trumped up charges against him to get him thrown into the Tower of London, the most infamous prison in the capital at the time. They tried to harass, molest and starve Thomas into submission, but he never relented. Finally, they framed him and got him sentenced to death. As he stood on the platform where he would be beheaded, he was asked whether he had any last words. He did. His valedictory, right before he had his head chopped off, was “I have always been the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Those words, each of us is called to make his own. All of us are called to be the good servants of our nation, of our communities, of our city, but God’s good servants first and above all. Should there be a conflict between what we owe to God and what civil leaders claim we owe to them, God must win. And the greatest service we can give to society and to her rulers is to serve God faithfully, because by this we bring to them the truth, which is the only foundation on which society can be firmly grounded.

A Nation Under God

We’re living in an era in which we need many more St. Thomas Mores among lay people and St. John Fishers among clergy and religious, because it’s time in which supposed conflicts between what we owe to God and what others claim we owe to society are growing. A numerically small but very litigious group of atheists, in conjunction with secularists on the courts, are trying to abuse the principle of the separation of Church and state to eliminate any reference from God in public life or public policy. This principle of the separation of Church and state comes historically from Christian reflection on Jesus’ principle in today’s Gospel of giving to Caesar and giving to God that Thomas Jefferson used in his famous Letter to the Baptist Church in Danbury. It was enshrined in our Constitution to prevent any one religion from becoming a national religion and to prevent the national government from infringing on religious liberty; it was never intended as a means by which God could be entirely kicked out of public life. But that’s precisely what these secularists and atheists, helped by the American Civil Liberties Union, are trying to do. They want to eliminate “one nation under God” from the pledge of allegiance. They want to excise “in God we trust” from our currency. They want to prevent crèches on public property. They want to purge prayers at graduations and sporting events. They want to remove any reference to the Ten Commandments anywhere and everywhere. Even if we were not Catholic, we could ask ourselves, as honest non-Christian public commentators have, “Are we better off with God or without God in public life?” Would our society be better if we kept the Ten Commandments or not? Are these atheists and secularists helping society or sabotaging it?

If the Founding Fathers were present today observing what they’re doing, they would without hesitation say that these militant secularists are subverting one of our country’s most important foundations. President George Washington, who himself was not a particularly religious man, recognized that without the government’s supporting religion in general, the nascent United States of America would not be able to survive. He declared in his farewell address in 1796, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports. . . . Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” President Washington saw the obvious: without a deep religious sense underlying our oaths, people will lie if they can get away with it; without a deep religious sense underneath our morality, all hell will break loose. There’s a Polish aphorism to the effect that the amount of police you need outside is inversely proportional to the amount of police you have on the inside. If we police ourselves, if we won’t do something wrong even if we could get away with it, then we can have a free country because our freedom won’t be used to destroy ourselves, others and our nation. But if we don’t police ourselves, if we don’t have a sense that there’s a higher order to which we need to answer, then we’ll need cops everywhere. The second president, John Adams, had similar advice: “We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and true religion. Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And so if our secularists inside and outside of government are undermining the general practice of religion and the moral life that flows from it, then are undermining what our nation needs in order to be able to remain strong and free.

The Imposition of a Militantly Secularist Agenda

Yet present occupant of the White House and his administration and many others who supposedly are public servants and who have sworn an oath on the Constitution including the Bill of Rights are not following in the line of Washington and Adams. Instead, they are rapidly implementing a secularist agenda when it comes to the role of religion in American life. They are trampling on the rights of conscience and the right to religious freedom, trying to reduce it to the “freedom to worship,” as if the life of faith is merely what we do in Church and not the way we live. But once we go to down that path, not even freedom of religion is safe. We’ve seen two dramatic examples of this in just the last week.

The openly lesbian mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, used the coercive power of city government and the courts to try to subpoena the sermons, speeches, website postings of Christian pastors in the city. Mayor Parker has been trying by fiat to push a “bathroom ordinance” down the throats of Houston citizens and children, eliminating all single-sex bathrooms so that those of confused gender can use any they want. Such an ordinance should be called more accurately a “Peeping Tom” decree, or a “Make Women and Girls Terribly Uncomfortable” policy, or a “Let’s pretend as if there’s no difference between male and female” ordinance. Some pastors in the Houston area helped to organize a lawsuit to stop the enforcement the new regulations, since it doesn’t require a lot of explanation to understand why such a bill would lead to situations of abuse, intimidation and discomfort. Upset at the opposition, the Mayor subpoenaed all sermons, presentations and speeches of pastors not even involved in the lawsuit on any topics that involve the mayor, gender identity or the new ordinance. It was a bald-faced attempt to intimidate Christian pastors against trying to stop the mayor and totally contrary not just to freedom of religion but also to freedom of worship. And we shouldn’t be so naïve to think that other secularists won’t use the same tactics against people of faith who seek to halt their agenda.

Another example happened just yesterday in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. City officials told Christian ministers Donald and Evelyn Knapp that, based on its new municipal “non-discrimination” ordinance, if they didn’t start immediately performing wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples they would face six months in jail and $1,000 in fines for each day they decline to perform that ceremony. Such attacks on religious freedom have been taking place over the past few years specifically with regard to same-sex pseudomarriages, trying to compel wedding cake makers, photographers, owners of halls and all other parts of the wedding industry against their conscience, against their faith, against God, to pretend as if it’s the same thing as a marriage between a man and a woman. And in various jurisdictions, people have had to go out of business. Emboldened by those legal victories, they’re now coming after clergy in the United States. What’s in going to take until Americans stand up and say that we’re not going to take it any longer? Are people going to have to wait until I’m in jail for not celebrating a same-sex union, or Bishop da Cunha is in jail for defending his priests? And if they come for us, that means they’re going to come for you if you’re faithful.

These aren’t the only incursions. The executive branch of our federal government is seeking, through the Department of Health and Human Services, to force all of us against our well-informed conscience to pay for others’ abortions in order to have health care. It’s forcing business owners to pay for them, nurses to participate in them, med-school students to be trained in them, and pharmacists to fill prescriptions for drugs that cause them. The same administration has said it won’t fund any charities that don’t refer women for abortion — like Church programs for sex-trafficking victims, or Catholic Relief Services who help after natural disasters such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Haiti after the earthquake or Indonesia after the tsnanami. During the summer, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting any federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or “gender identity.” What this means at a practical level is that Catholic Social Services, which receives lots of money for programs for the poor, the homeless and the disabled, wouldn’t be able to continue to receive any of that assistance unless, for example, it refused to consider whether a gay activist should be the main receptionist, whether a transgendered transvestite’s situation should be totally overlooked with regard to a marriage counselor, and so on. Many secularists are treating our opposition to abortion as discrimination against women, our support for marriage as Christ made it discrimination against gays, our support of the truth as imposing our version of morality on them, as they continue to ram a secularist agenda down our throats.

Drawing the Line

Today our Diocese is having its annual “Red Mass” calling down the power of the Holy Spirit on those who work in the legal profession as lawyers, judges and court personnel. I’m very happy that Claudine Cloutier of our parish is to be awarded by Bishop Da Cunha the St. Thomas More Award as a distinguished lawyer. These Red Masses have become more important over the years as the legal profession has been getting manipulated as an instrument against religious freedom and the common good. A few years ago, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, IL, a civil lawyer by training, went to Houston to give the homily at their Red Mass. After reviewing some of the same incursions against religious freedom that I have just detailed, he said: “Perhaps the best antidote to profane secularism can be learned from the example of those who withstood and defeated godless communism. One of the staunchest defenders of the Church in communist Poland was the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. In May 1953, the communist regime ordered the implementation of a law by which it, not the Catholic Church, would appoint and remove pastors, vicars and bishops. The Church would become, de facto, a subsidiary of the state. In a powerful sermon at Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral, Cardinal Wyszyński drew the line, saying, ‘We teach that it is proper to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. But when Caesar sits himself on the altar, we respond curtly: he may not.’”

What’s it going to take for us as citizens to draw the line? As free citizens, we can and need to do more than respond curtly that the government may not sit on our altar, obliterating our religious freedom and the duty we have to render to God the things that are God’s. We need to act. But how are we going to act? Are Catholics today going to be like the Catholics in 16th century Britain, most of whom did nothing in response to the tyranny of Henry VIII, who did nothing when God’s rights were being trampled upon except side with those who were doing the trampling? Will Catholics today just go along with the tide, as they did, provided that they’re left alone, for now? Or will Catholics stand up, like St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, and say, “We are good Americans, but citizens of heaven first!?” Will Catholics rise up peacefully as the modern St. Thomas Mores, St. John Fishers, and Cardinal Wyszynskis?

One crucial way we need to respond to in the way we vote. We ultimately reap the leaders we sow with our votes on election day. It’s ultimately we who are responsible for putting in office those who have used their position to erode away our first Amendment protection to freedom of religion through giving executive orders, legislative bills or judicial appointments, and we haven’t inflicted a political cost on those who have abused their positions in this way. That ought to change. As we prepare to vote on November 4, we should be asking the questions of those who seek to represent us as to where they stand on these issues, and if they’re not going to be able to represent us and our values, or George Washington’s and John Adam’s values, then they should never, ever, ever, ever, ever get our vote. But voting is only a start. We need to get involved, as salt, light and leaven, courageously seeking to bring faith back to the public square and not let the secularists succeed in trying to evict faith from public life.

Today God asks us to look in the mirror and see in whose image we are made. Then he calls us to act in accordance with that dignity. Through the intercession of Blessed Paul VI who gave his life in service to God and to the truths of the faith, through the intercession of SS. Thomas More, John Fisher and the North American Martyrs, may God give us the help and audacity he knows we need always to render to Him the things that are His so that we may be able to say at every moment of our life — and at the moment of our death — that we have always been good citizens of our great land who have sought to make it better, but we’ve always been God’s good servants first. And as Jesus prepares to give us his Body and Blood today, let’s give Him what belongs to Him as God.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 IS 45:1, 4-6

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus,
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before him,
and making kings run in his service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,
I have called you by your name,
giving you a title, though you knew me not.
I am the LORD and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun
people may know that there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, there is no other.

Responsorial Psalm PS 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10

R/ (7b) Give the Lord glory and honor.
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R/ Give the Lord glory and honor.
For great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
awesome is he, beyond all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are things of nought,
but the LORD made the heavens.
R/ Give the Lord glory and honor.
Give to the LORD, you families of nations,
give to the LORD glory and praise;
give to the LORD the glory due his name!
Bring gifts, and enter his courts.
R/ Give the Lord glory and honor.
Worship the LORD, in holy attire;
tremble before him, all the earth;
say among the nations: The LORD is king,
he governs the peoples with equity.
R/ Give the Lord glory and honor.

Reading 2 1 THES 1:1-5B

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you,
remembering you in our prayers,
unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love
and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,
before our God and Father,
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God,
how you were chosen.
For our gospel did not come to you in word alone,
but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.

Gospel MT 22:15-21

The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”