Ordinary Time 29 – October 18, 2020
There will be no audio for this homily. It was not delivered in 2020.
I am serving a Maronite Community away from Naples.
Isaiah 45, 1, 4-6 + Psalm 96 + 1 Thessalonians 1, 1-5 + Matthew 22, 15-21
This episode continues the conflict of Jesus with the leaders of the people who are always hanging around, it would seem, trying to trap him in some act or opinion that would set him up for condemnation. We are still in the Temple precincts. It’s a busy place. There are a lot of people around. Those money changers Jesus had disrupted were quickly back in business because they had to be there for the Temple to function. It was forbidden to use Roman coins for the offerings needed for the rituals. They had to change the money into a coin without that image of Caesar. There was in that issue, two conflicts: Israel’s law allowed no images, and Caesar claimed to be divine. Those within hearing distance and the Jewish/Christian community for whom Matthew writes must have smiled or maybe even laughed over the way Jesus traps the trappers. Jesus has no coin. When one of them pulls out the forbidden coin, without a word spoken, Jesus has them cornered.
We have to hear this instruction very clearly in terms of that second issue. Rendering to Caesar is a partial fulfillment of a much more basic duty which is rendering to God what is God’s. In other words, the two are not equal. The two renderings are not separate but equal, or two halves of a responsibility. Jesus recognizes that everyone must have a certain concern for the political and social well-being of one’s country, but that well-being is just one part of a responsibility for what is God’s. That loyalty or concern for Caesar or one’s country is rooted in the greater and more important concern and fidelity to God because everything is God’s. There is no intention on the part of Jesus to make them equal.
This is no early explanation of our contemporary separation of Church and State. There is no intention on the part of Jesus to compartmentalize our lives and think that the two are separate and equal. They are not. The wisdom or revelation here is that while there is a legitimate function of human authority it is always in relation to God’s authority. We are citizens of two countries, so to speak: a kingdom of this earth, and the kingdom of heaven. We need to be clear about that, and the more important and lasting one of them holds the higher authority. The challenge here demands that we engage in the difficult and complex discernment of how to live in history and society aware of our greater commitment to the reign of God.
This confrontation over the coin is not a solution to the controversy of church verses state. This is not some easy way out of what may well be the purpose and meaning of life. The struggle with our consciences and the values we have deep in our hearts is exactly what this life is all about, and entering into that struggle is what ultimately determines what life will be like here and in eternity. In this age of rapidly growing secularization, what emerges is the urgent need for all of us to act out of our deepest convictions and values rooted in the Gospel as it reveals the will of God. We have to ask over and over again, “Is this the will of God? Does God want God’s children separated by skin color? Does God want a privileged few to maintain that privilege at the disadvantage or many? Does God want or will the taking of any human life? Does God want anyone to be hungry?” That question can never stop being asked.
Today, Jesus Christ appeals to us all to look beyond the simplistic politics and black and white legalisms that are represented by Caesar’s coin and realize that we are called to embrace the values centered in a faith that sees the hand of God in all things and recognize every human life as part of the one human family under the reign and providence of God. We really don’t live in two separate worlds. How we live in the world of Caesar may very well determine how and if we shall live in the world of God. Perhaps, our purpose and task in this life is to bring into fulfillment the Kingdom of God.