Rendering Aright to God and to Caesar, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (EF), November 5, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Extraordinary Form
November 5, 2017
Phil 1:6-11, Mt 22:15-21


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


The following text guided today’s homily: 

Running Courageously and Sagely Toward the Last Things

We have now entered into November, which is meant to be a month-like retreat during which, as we approach the end of the liturgical year, we ponder the end and meaning of life, confront the fact of the four last things, reexamine the direction we’re going and then spiritually step on the accelerator. To quote St. Paul from today’s Epistle, it’s a time for our “love … to increase ever more and more, … to discern what is of value, so that [we] may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness.”

The first Sunday in the month of November is also the day in which New Yorkers welcome athletes from all over the globe for the Marathon, and their example of training and stamina provides a backdrop for us to ask ourselves, with St. Paul’s testimony in his second Letter to St. Timothy, whether we’re exercising similar grit in fighting the good fight, finishing the race and keeping the faith by living it and passing it on.

The readings for the Mass today can be examined from within this dual perspective of eschatology and Christian asceticism.

Jesus’ Response to the Trap Set for Him

In the 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. Herod and his partisans 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. To use his currency or to give him anything was, for them, tantamount to idolatry. Despite their disagreement, both groups agreed that their long-standing disagreement seemed to be 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 that we Christians know was nevertheless true: “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 thorny, highly relevant, problematic, controversial, and indeed malicious 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 sedition and inciting lawlessness among the people. But Jesus would not be trapped, and would bring good out of their evil. In answer to their hypocrisy, he pointed the path to true human integrity. In response to their deceitfulness, Jesus gave us a truth on which to structure our lives, one that is as relevant today as it ever was.

After he had asked to see the denarius stamped with the Emperor’s profile used for the tax and they had brought him one (showing that all of them used the money when it served their purposes!), he calmly 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.” To pay taxes or to participate in the social order was not de facto an act of idolatry. In fact, Jesus said, there are imperatives in the social order just as there are imperatives in our relationship to God. The two in principle are not only not in conflict but in the best scenario should go together, because as we heard two weeks ago, 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 according to our Image

Today, we come here to St. Agnes not to entrap Jesus in his speech, but to learn from him the truth that will set us free. We come to ask him to go more deeply into the question about the allegiance we owe to the social order — to our society, our nation, our communities, our city — and the allegiance we owe to him. Today he wants us not mainly to look our currency, but look in the mirror, and ask, “Whose image is this?” The human being, every person, you and I, carry within not just the image of our parents and grandparents, but another far more profound reflection and identity, that of God, and therefore it is to him that of us owes our existence. As one ancient author wrote, “The image of God is not impressed on gold, but on the human race. Caesar’s coin is gold, God’s coin is humanity,” and St. Augustine mentioned, “As tribute money is rendered to [Caesar], so should the soul be rendered to God, illumined and stamped with the light of his countenance.” We’re called to 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, as good stewards, to give back to God with interest the things that are his. The greatest confusion of our age is not political, or gender-based or racial. It’s when we forget our identity, when we fail to remember that we’re chips off the divine Block, that we’ve been formed like God to become like him by participating in his life.

Two weeks ago, when this Gospel was read on the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time in the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite, Pope Francis spoke in his Angelus meditation about what Jesus’ words mean for us and for Christians of every age. “The reference to Caesar’s image engraved on the coin,” Pope Francis told those assembled in St. Peter’s Square, “says that it is right that they feel fully — with rights and duties — citizens of the State; but symbolically it makes them think about the other image that is imprinted on every man and woman: the image of God. …  From the question posed to him by the Pharisees, Jesus draws a more radical and vital question for each of us, a question we can ask ourselves: to whom do I belong? To family, to the city, to friends, to work, to politics, to the State? Yes, of course. But first and foremost — Jesus reminds us — you belong to God. This is the fundamental belonging. It is He who has given you all that you are and have. And therefore, day by day, we can and must live our life in recognition of this fundamental belonging and in heartfelt gratitude toward our Father, who creates each one of us individually, unrepeatably, but always according to the image of his beloved Son, Jesus. It is a wondrous mystery.”

The 100 percent tax rate

I’d like to make two brief applications of this wondrous mystery from today’s Gospel. The first regards our level of giving to God. The context of taxes in today’s Gospel is helpful. Most of us hate paying taxes and do everything we can to pay less — at different levels, we save receipts, we take deductions, we pay accountants to find loopholes, we vote for politicians who promise lower rates, we move savings to off-shore havens, and those who run corporations often lobby legislators for loopholes. Sometimes we try similar strategies with God, whom we don’t want to tax the time, money, talents, he’s given us, because we prefer to be owners rather than stewards. Many of us do what we can to get out of our spiritual commitments. We ask how far can we go without sinning. We do the minimum in terms of our prayers. We donate something but do not make a real sacrifice. We even shop for Churches or Masses that are less demanding on our time. Today Jesus is calling us to a different way of living. He says to us, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” and “Give to the civil order what the civil order is owed.” The gift that Jesus is asking of us is ourselves, and our supreme task in life is to make our lives fit to offer to him and with him for others. We’re all in a 100 percent tax bracket, called to give everything… with love! This is how St. Paul finishes today’s first reading, by urging us to focus our existence “for the glory and praise of God.”

This is pointed to in today’s first reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, but it’s hidden behind his beautiful prayer “that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” The words in Greek he uses for “begin” and “complete” are enarchesthai and epitelein, respectively, which are technical terms for the beginning and end of a sacrifice. The apostle is basically framing our entire life as a sacrifice ready to be offered to God, which is the same thing he does when he urges us in his Letter to the Romans to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” We’re called to give ourselves in this way, first to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, and then to love our neighbor with the same totality in God. It’s the exact opposite of a minimalistic or shallow approach to the Christian life. It’s to run so as to win. It’s to seek to do as well as we can on the final exam of life.

And in this context, we need to address what and how much we give to the civil order. Christ calls us to get involved, not to withdraw. He summons us to be salt, light and leaven, not to hide behind walls. One of the reasons why our culture, our political class, our entertainment class, so many other aspects of our life are in need of deep conversion is because faithful Catholics have not gotten involved enough, not enough good Catholics serve in public office with integrity. A failure to be a good citizen and take responsibility for our society according to the capacities and opportunities God has given us is a failure in Christian duty. There’s talk today in Catholic circles of a “Benedict option,” of withdrawing from the main culture and form Catholic subcultures based on, I believe, a misinterpretation of what St. Benedict himself did 1500 years ago. But Jesus is calling us to something different. He does not want us running from the world, but toward the world, being in it while not being of it. It’s not to leave others to transform it negatively, but to take responsibility for doing what we can as a service to transform it into something compatible with his kingdom. As Pope Francis said two Sunday ago, “Christians are called to commit themselves concretely in earthly realities, by illuminating them with the light that comes from God. The primary entrustment to God and hope in him do not imply an escape from reality, but rather the diligent rendering to God that which belongs to him,” and the world is his. That’s the commitment, that’s the payment, Jesus today calls us to give to God and to our society. That’s the good work, the sacrifice, he’s begun in us that he wants to bring to completion. And this is a sacrifice he wants us to do not as isolated individuals but together as, to use St. Paul’s words in today’s first reading, “partners … in grace … in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel.”

When conflicts arise because Caesar arrogates divine prerogatives

The second application 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 Church and civilization, St. Thomas More, former chancellor to Henry VIII. I won’t revisit his story, except he was asked to violate his conscience and affirm two oaths, that Henry— not the Pope, not Jesus — was the supreme head of the Church in England, and that Henry’s marriage to Catharine of Aragon was null, his marriage to Anne Boleyn was valid, and that his rightful heir would be Anne’s offspring. Thomas refused to take the oath. 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 should there ever be a conflict between the two orders. All of us are called to be the good servants of our nation, of our communities, of our city, as Thomas More was. St. Peter told the first Christians, “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17). St. Paul told the Romans, “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities. … Whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed. … Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom 13:1-2, 7). But when the authority himself resists God, we need to obey the highest authority, to be 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, even to the point of suffering and martyrdom, because by this we bring to them the truth, which is the only foundation on which society can be firmly grounded.

This is the truth to remember as we mark this Tuesday the hundredth anniversary of the rise of Leninist communism and the atrocities that the communists for nearly 75 years carried out against conscience and human dignity made in God’s image, and in a few places sadly continue. Being God’s servant first is also what we have to keep in mind as many aggressively militant secularists try to reduce religious freedom to freedom of worship in order to evict God and listening to him in conscience out of the sphere of Caesar altogether. When taxes to God and taxes to the state must both be paid, we give first and all to God. But we are grateful to live in a society in which historically there has not been great conflicts between the two, and we commit ourselves as God’s servant and our country’s, to make sure that the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the freedoms for which the founding fathers fought and so many soldiers across the decades have died, may remain so that we indeed give both to God and to Caesar as Christ our King calls us to today.

Being Renewed in the Image of God

Today at this Mass, God not only calls us to look in the mirror, see in whose image we are made, and then act in accordance with that dignity. He seeks to conform us ever more into that image through bringing us into the most profound communion possible. This is where he seeks to bring the good work he has begun in us to completion, here in what the Church calls the source and summit of Christian life. This is where he will strengthen us and bless us so that he may send us forth, together as partners in grace, to be his and our nation’s good servants, to fight the good fight, finish the marathon of life and keep and spread the faith. As Jesus prepares to give us his Body and Blood today, let’s give Him what belongs to Him as God, to love him with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, and to commit ourselves to serving our country and building his kingdom “for the glory and praise of God.” Amen!


The readings for today’s Mass were: 

A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

The continuation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew
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.”