The Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time October 22, 2017
Isaiah 45, 1, 4-6 + Psalm 96 + 1 Thessalonians 1, 1-5 + Matthew 22, 15-21
Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Norman, Oklahoma
As I was sitting with this passage in reflection and prayer a few weeks back, I decided that it was best understood aloud. In other words, just reading the text was not working. I needed to hear it just as the people “heard” it from the lips of Jesus. So, I read it out loud several times with different emphasis which seemed to shift the focus. When I read it with a long pause between the first part about Caesar and then raised my voice emphatically with the second part, I really think I heard Jesus.
For way too long people who want to take an easy way out of what is being proposed here take the words out of context to justify a “two kingdom” theology that has life neatly divided into two autonomous realms: the secular and the religious, or worse, to justify unswerving obedience to secular authority with that slogan, “my country right or wrong”! Really? I would like to say after digging into the meat of these verses. Is there really anything that does not belong to God? When that question begins to be raised, we begin to move into the heart of what Jesus means.
There has hardly been a time in history when there was no clash between what Caesar wants and what God wants. The clash is usually over moral issues. In our times with rapidly increasing technology and a weakening faith life with little room for God in the scheme of things, we are facing more and more ethical issues where the law of God conflicts with civil law. We who render to God what is God’s recognize that what is legal is not always what is moral, and right at this point, the voice of Jesus rings out clearly. Jesus never intended to make God and Caesar equals in the loyalty of our heart, our service or our dues. God alone is God. There is no other. God commands the first and the best of us. Even when committed to public service, Caesar is no match for God.
Behind all of this there is really a question of authority which has been stirring in the Gospels for the past three weeks. The question is, “Who speaks to us with real authority?” I would suggest that it is not Caesar. It is not government nor any political party. There is hardly any difference between them. Behind all the talk and noise, they all offer the same thing: money, power, nationalism, and entertainment. One version of this offers us low taxes and more prosperity, national security and power, enlightened egotism, and the narcissistic myth that since we have “earned” our possessions, the poor of our country and this world have no claim on us. The other version appeals to unbounded self-indulgence where individualistic choice trumps every value and good imaginable. All the talk about “rights” has nothing to do with the real value of people and humanity. It is all a lot of noise about special interests demanding satisfaction. So, one jabbers on about morality and the other about “the right thing.” All the while there is a numbing silence about justice, discipline and sacrifice. If there is any thought about it, it’s something others should be doing.
There is here no neat and easy solution to the question of Church and State relations. A legitimate state has rights and good citizens respect them, The Gospel has given us a principle however that always leads us to think about, value, and make choices that are in the common good, not the good of some select few or some special interest. The Common Good is what matters. This twenty-second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel ends with a pronouncement of the greatest of all commandments which we will proclaim next week: loving God with one’s whole heart, minds, and soul, and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Read that commandment out loud all week long with the same pause and emphasis on the second part as I proposed with this text. For you see, humans, not coins bear the image of God, and no edict or law, president, king, or congress can absolve followers of Jesus from this mandate to love God and see God in the neighbor.