God’s Good Servants First, Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), October 16, 2011 Audio Homily

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
October 16, 2011
Is 45:1 4-6, Ps 96:1 3-5 7-10, 1Thes 1:1-5, Mt 22:15-21

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click at the bottom of the page. The following text guided this homily:



  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 the glory days of Rome. “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • We’re living in an era in which we need many more St. Thomas Mores, because it’s 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 of the separation of Church and state to eliminate any reference of 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 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 ACLU, 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 harming it?
  • President George Washington, who was not himself 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 indispensable 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.” 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 policemen 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.”
  • Yet their successor, Barack Obama, and his government are not taking this advice. In fact, 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. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, a very affable and complimentary man who always seeks to find the good, in the last couple of weeks has written a letter to President Obama and another to his brother bishops basically calling attention to what the President is doing. He’s taken off the gloves, so to speak, and ceased to be complimentary when it’s clear that the government is baldly going after the rights of believers and Churches. He highlighted several instances, but I’ll mention three:
  1. The government, specifically the Department of Health and Human Services, is now trying to force all of us to give our earnings to pay for others to get contraception, sterilizations and abortion-causing pills.
  2. They’re treating our support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman as an unconstitutional act of bigotry. Right now they’re arguing that just to overturn the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly and was signed into law by President Clinton. But this is just the first step. If that “bigotry” is found unconstitutional, then the logical next step is that those of us, as individuals and as Catholic Churches that are with Jesus about marriage, will be prosecuted for not renting our apartments to those in gay marriages. Already clerks are being fired for not giving out marriage licenses to those of the same-sex even if they provide for someone else in the office to do it.
  3. The government is also arguing against what’s called in constitutional jurisprudence the ministerial exception, that religious groups have an exception to normal employment law, so that Jewish groups don’t need to hire, for example, non-Jews who don’t know Jewish culture, so that evangelical churches don’t have to hire people who don’t live by Christian teachings, etc., that Catholic groups don’t have to ordain married men or women. The Obama Justice Department just argued before the Supreme Court against the ministerial exception that even the most liberal Justices on the Court seemed to find pretty ludicrous in their initial questionings.
  • During the fall season, most dioceses, like our own, have “Red Masses,” calling down the power of the Holy Spirit on those who work in the legal profession as lawyers, judges and court personnel. On Sept 29, 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 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.’”
  • But, as free citizens, we need to do more than respond curtly that government can’t do it when it’s sitting on the altar. We need to act. 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? The question for us is whether we are going to take these outrages and 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 or whether we’re going to rise up peacefully as the modern St. Thomas Mores and St. John Fishers, or Cardinal Wyszynski.
  • 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.

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1IS 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 21 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.”