Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
October 16, 2005
Is 45:1,4-6; 1Thess1:1-5; Mt 22:15-21
1) 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 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. They thought their long-standing disagreement was a perfect catch-22 by which to nail the carpenter from Nazareth.
2) So they approached Jesus and manifested their mendacity and hypocrisy by a barrage of empty flattery: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, 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 pay taxes to the emperor 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.
3) 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 mendacity, Jesus gave us a truth to live by, one that is as relevant today as it ever was.
4) 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 which extends far beyond than the glory days of Rome. “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God.” Most of Jesus’ original listeners thought that you couldn’t serve two masters, 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 comes from God.
5) Today, we don’t come to trap 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.
6) What are we to do when conflicts arise between the two orders of responsibility, to this world and the next. How do we resolve them? 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 get rid of her and marry another who would be able to provide him an heir — unsurprisingly, he already had someone in mind (Anne Boleyn). 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. Pope Clement, however, saw no reason that his 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,” dismissed Catherine, married Anne, and then made every British subject take two oaths. One 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 would be Anne’s offspring. The second oath was the “oath of supremacy;” one had to swear that the king, and not Christ through his earthly vicar, was the head of the Church.
7) What happened? Most British Catholics betrayed Christ and took the oath. Almost every bishop in England joined them. One bishop, John Fisher, refused to take the oath and he was killed. Thomas was still chancellor, number two in the kingdom, but his conscience prevented him from lying before God. He consistently refused to take either of the oaths. Henry was furious and took it as a sign of betrayal. 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, perhaps the most famous prison in the capital at the time. They tried to harass, molest and starve Thomas into submission, but he never relented. Finally, they sentenced him 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.”
8 ) 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. Should there ever 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.
9) We’re living in an era in which we need many more St. Thomas Mores, because we’re living in a 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 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. It was enshrined in our Constitution to prevent any one religion from becoming a national religion; 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 ACLU, are trying to do. We can take just a few examples of their initiatives. 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 in courtrooms. 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 harming it?
10) But the far better question for Catholics to ask themselves is, “What are we going to do about it?” Are we going to be like the Catholics in 16th century Britain, most of whom did nothing in response to the tyranny of Henry VIII? Will we just go along with the tide, as they did, provided that we’re left alone? Or will we stand up, like St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, and say, “We are good American citizens, but citizens of heaven first!?” Are we God’s servants above all or not?
11) We are at a crucial moment in the history of our nation and of our commonwealth. We are living in a state in which over 50% of the citizens are Roman Catholic; yet look at what has happened under our watch! We have one of the highest per capita abortion rates in the nation, and among the most lax abortion laws. Our legislators just passed overwhelmingly a bill allowing us to kill human embryos, stamped with God’s image and likeness, to harvest their body parts. Four justices on our Supreme Judicial Court forced gay marriage on the rest of us, and now young school kids have to learn why little Heather has two mommies. Just a few decades ago, almost no business was able to open on Sunday, so that people could keep holy the Sabbath day, get their priorities straight and spend time with God and with their families. Now, almost every business is open on Sunday and many bosses force their employees to work if they wish to maintain their jobs. In response to these facts, the question for us is whether Catholics in our state are going to rise up as the modern St. Thomas Mores and St. John Fishers, or whether Catholics in our state are going to behave like the vast majority of Catholic lay people and clergy in the 1500s, who did nothing when God’s rights were being trampled upon except side with those who were doing the trampling.
12) 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. May he give us his help so that we may always give to Him the things that are His and be able to say at every moment of our life — and at the moment of our death — that we have always been citizens of our great land, but God’s good servants first.