Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
When I was born in Plattsburgh, the city had a most unique mayor: Roland St. Pierre—Father Roland St. Pierre, a Roman Catholic priest. With the permission of his superiors, in 1971 he resigned his position as pastor of my home parish in order to run for office. He beat the incumbent that November by a margin of almost 2-to-1, and went on to be reelected twice.
Have no fear: I’m not about to announce to you that I’m running for mayor of Malone!
Fr. St. Pierre’s time as an elected official certainly raises the issue of the appropriate relationship between Church and State, between religion and politics. That’s not a new concern, as this Sunday’s gospel reading makes clear. Jesus gives us one of his best one-liners—a catchy sound bite long before our Popes and our Presidents began to “tweet”: Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God.
It’s a deceptively simple phrase.
To begin with, Jesus affirms that there is a legitimate distinction between these two spheres of influence. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar… Like right religion, a just government has a valid and crucial role to play in the world: making laws, giving order to society, providing for our defense, negotiating treaties, and—yes—even levying taxes in order to pay for all of this. It’s not a question of either/or, but of both/and. Which is why it should strike us as strange that a priest would be an elected government official. It crosses and tangles the lines. In fact, Canon Law now completely forbids it. (Sorry, Fr. St. Pierre!) We can’t allow politics become our religion.
…and render unto God what belongs to God. And what, my friends, belongs to God? Everything, of course—even Caesar! While religious leaders shouldn’t seek to be political leaders, that doesn’t mean the Church doesn’t have anything to say to the State. In fact, calling politicians to account is an essential part of the Church’s mission, which we especially remember on this World Mission Sunday. As Christians journeying onward toward the next world, we have a God-given duty to keep making this one better—working for peace and justice, speaking up for those with no voice, whether that’s the unborn child, the refugee, or those approaching their last days on earth.
But Jesus gives this teaching—quite important in and of itself—in a very particular context that reveals to us another critical life lesson (one which I never recognized before hearing Bishop Robert Barron recently reflect on this gospel passage).
In case you haven’t noticed, the Pharisees rather dislike Jesus. In fact, it’s not too much to say they hate him, since we know they will eventually conspire with other Jewish leaders (whom they would normally consider enemies) in order to have Jesus eliminated. And so we find them this Sunday setting a trap for him.
They begin with some false flattery in their effort to trip him up, asking for his opinion on paying the census tax. Paying taxes has always been unpopular—and particularly so in this case, since we’re talking about money the Jewish people must pay to their pagan Roman conquerors. The Pharisees know that if Jesus says they should pay, he will be betraying his own people—and therefore alienate much of his “base.” But they also know that if Jesus says folks should not pay, he’ll run afoul of the Roman authorities—and they can be sure those authorities will find out, since some Herodians are standing nearby, who’re in pretty thick with the Romans.
Have you ever noticed just how mean religious people can be to one another? We see it between the faithful of different religions, and of different denominations, but it’s most disturbing of all when it’s Catholics versus Catholics. Two people, two groups, have a difference of religious opinion, and they end up at each other’s throats. They don’t simply want to convince their opponents otherwise; they attempt to all out destroy them. If you don’t believe me, look at Catholic news sites online and read some of the comments. They’re often filled with cruel and hurtful words. When religion gets so politicized, it results in character assassination at its best, and something like 9/11 at its worst.
This, unfortunately, isn’t reserved to the Internet or international affairs; I’ve seen it all too many times right here in our own community.
We can never serve the God of love by hating other people. Sure, we can respectfully argue about differing positions. We can—and should—kindly and constructively correct others when they are mistaken. But there’s absolutely no room for hate. It only serves to undermine the gospel we’re on a mission to spread. When we speak the truth, it must always be in love.
Jesus shows us this other way. He sees right through the Pharisees’ trap, and refuses to play their game. That’s the great strategy of his comeback: he doesn’t take the bait; he doesn’t fight fire with fire; he avoids being drawn in to battle. If Jesus had responded with a counterattack, he would have only given them justification for their suspicion and hatred. That simple but effective strategy is not a bad one for you and I use to use still today!
Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God. Let us never neglect our duty to speak up as Christians on the matters of the day, yet without allowing politics to become our religion. And let us also avoid the temptation to make our religion something political. We must never look on each other in terms of winners and losers, but always as true brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ—all children of one and the same God.