October 23, 2017
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on October 22, 2017 at St. Thomas More Parish in Cedar Park, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b, 19-20; and Matthew 22:15-21.
Jesus ends today’s gospel passage by saying, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” I’ve heard lots of homilies on this passage, with a variety of claims of what Jesus meant.
Me? I don’t know what Jesus meant. Let’s focus instead on the circumstances. This is our fourth week in a row with Jesus in the Temple area after his triumphal entry into the city on Palm Sunday. The question placed before Jesus is controversial: should Jews pay the Roman census tax? Pharisees opposed the tax, but they feared to do so publicly. (Matthew’s readers know that the opposition to this tax is what eventually led to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 AD.) But the Pharisees invite some Herodians – Jews who collaborated with the Romans – to be part of the crowd, so that no matter what answer Jesus gives, part of the crowd will be infuriated.
How is the Church to relate to the state? Can we accept God’s declaration in our first reading that Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia, is God’s anointed agent? Our second reading is the oldest passage written in the New Testament. As Paul greets the Thessalonians with wishes of grace and peace, let us pause and celebrate God’s mercy.
Was it right to pay the Roman census tax? It was required of everyone in the Roman Empire, including Jews. The Pharisees opposed it.
In fact, the Pharisees were opposed to most of the coins used in the empire. Those coins bore the image of the emperor Tiberius Caesar, and because Tiberius was widely worshipped as a god, the Pharisees considered coins with Tiberius’ image to be idolatrous. That is part of the reason why money changers were needed in the temple area – so that Jews who had Roman coins could change them into Hebrew sheckels for paying the Temple tax. In the time of Jesus, however, the Roman empire accommodated the Jews’ religious concerns, so they made some Roman coins for Jews to use that did not bear the image of Tiberius Caesar.
I think Jesus’ brilliance is not so much in what he says as it is in what he shows. These particular Pharisees – who claimed to be so pious – not only had brought Roman coins into the Temple area, but also had carried in coins with the idolatrous image on it.
Jesus seems to be endorsing that Jews needs to pay the Roman census tax. Even these Pharisees – with serious objections about the Roman occupation of Jerusalem – had to use Roman coins in order to negotiate day-to-day living in the city of Jerusalem. So, when Jesus says to repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God, I don’t think he’s saying that Church and state can or should be cleanly separated from one another. All things belong to God; however, some things belong to the state, too.
How do we determine our exact responsibilities to the state? Well, Jesus doesn’t say. And that makes sense, because determining our responsibility is quite complex. It depends on the issue, the form of government, and the consequences of our actions. Let’s remember: at the time Matthew is writing his gospel, he and his audience know that the Judean zealot movement’s opposition to paying the Roman census tax led to the Jewish wars and the destruction of the Temple.
In recent weeks, we’ve been baptizing babies right and left at St. Austin Parish. At the beginning of a Mass with a baptism, we admonish the parents: “You… are accepting the responsibility of training [your child] in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (or her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor.” These parents pledge to raise their children as members of the Body of Christ, teaching to love both God and neighbor. They pledge to teach their children how to appropriately pay both God and Caesar, even when there are no hard-and-fast rules of how to do that. In every decision, we must inform our consciences so we can make educated choices. We must prayerfully discern our decisions.
Which, of course, brings us to the contentious issue of political elections. How would Jesus vote? Elections are complicated. It’s not as if one candidate is “good” and the other is “bad.” In most circumstances, every choice is a mixed bag. You often have to “hold your nose” and go with the “least worst” choice. Nevertheless, the Church is clear: as a citizen, you have a responsibility to vote. And you have the responsibility to be an informed voter. That takes work! The next election in both Travis and Williamson counties is November 7, and early voting begins tomorrow, so get to it! Learn about the issues and the candidates, and pray mightily!
A few years ago, I was explaining the seven main themes of Catholic Social Teaching to a group of RCIA inquirers at the University of Tennessee:
- Life and Dignity of the Human Person
- Call to Family, Community, and Participation
- Rights and Responsibilities
- Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
- The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
- Care for God’s Creation
Catholic Social Teaching cannot be bound into neat, political categories. I was a bit disappointed in some of the inquirers’ reactions. I thought that I had made it abundantly clear that the Church endorses some positions that are considered conservative and some that are liberal. Some are downright socialist, and others are libertarian. Despite this, some of the inquirers thought that they could just choose the positions that agreed with their preferred political party and ignore the rest. No! Jesus continually challenges us to give all things to God, not just the things that are easy.
Well, what belongs to Caesar, or to the federal or Texas government? That calls for constant discernment on our parts. But let’s keep in mind, just as we continue to baptize children into the Body of Christ, all of us have a responsibility to build up the kingdom of God in all aspects of our lives.