October 16, 2011
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.
“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,
and to God what belongs to God.”
As many times as we’ve heard this text,
perhaps its never been more apropos than today,
as we approach state elections in just 3 weeks away,
and as next years national elections are the topic of daily headlines.
Some try to use this text to tell the Church to mind it’s own business
and keep its nose out of public debate, especially out of elections
Others, however, use it to defend the Church’s involvement in politics.
So what is the meaning of the dichotomy between Caesar and God
that Christ lays out?
Like anything in the word of God, like God himself,
this text has multiple layers and multiple facets.
First, Jesus is talking about relationship between the Church and the state.
Historically, the Old Testament reveals that in the case of Israel
God intended there to be no real distinction.
When God established Israel as a great nation
he made Moses it’s absolute ruler, as well as prophet and priest:
a true theocracy.
And it would continue as a theocracy for 700 years
until Israel was conquered and ruled for another 700 years
by a series of foreign pagan kings.
Which brings us to today’s Gospel.
Here we see 2 groups who were deeply involved
in the political struggles of Israel.
The Herodians who were the “pro-Caesar” Jews
and had no interest at all in a return to a religious monarchy
And the Pharisees, devout Jews who longed for the coming of the Messiah
who would reestablishing the Jewish religious state.
And into their midst walks Jesus, who seems to be the messiah,
which is why the Herodians feared him.
But he’s not the kind of messiah the Pharisees were hoping for,
which is why they feared him.
And so they joined forces to force Jesus to take sides,
so that one or the other can have him arrested and executed.
But he does not take sides.
He simply says:
“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,
and to God what belongs to God.”
He’s is not terribly concerned about the state or creating an earthly kingdom,
but about the conversion of individual hearts and lives.
So in this short and pithy saying he rejects both
the wall of separation
and the religious monarchy.
But he also means something more.
Remember what he says later to Pontius Pilate:
“You would have no power over me
unless it had been given you from above.”
Or what St. Paul’s writes 20 years:
“there is no authority except from God
…Therefore he who resists the authorities
resists what God has appointed.”
And then remember the words from today’s 1st reading from Isaiah,
as God says to Cyrus the Persian,
one of the foreign pagan king who ruled over Israel:
“For the sake ….of Israel…
I have called you by your name, giving you a title,
though you knew me not.”
But then he adds: “I am the LORD and there is no other.”
Now we see more clearly what Jesus meant:
civil authorities have their own proper authority,
but in the end that and all legitimate authority comes from God.
Now, some people today might say that teaching is un-American.
But to me it seems to echo in the words of our nation’s founding document:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident,
that all Men ….are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights…
That to secure these Rights,
Governments are instituted among Men.”
Here the founder’s base our nation’s whole existence on God—the Creator—
and hold that our government exists only
to protect what God has given to man.
This seems to be very close to what Jesus told the Herodians.
Now, it is true that over the centuries the Church has often
become more involved in secular government than Christ
would seem to have preferred:
after the first 300 years of the state persecuting the Church,
we began to see various levels of blurring of the lines
between Church and state
—on the part of both the Church and the state.
In it’s defense we can say, truthfully, that the Church’s efforts
were often well intentioned.
Still, we have to admit that many of the motives of some Churchmen
were not so pure, nor were the results always happy.
And we also see that the more closely the church directly involved itself
with the state or in grasping secular power as it’s own,
the more likely it was to be involved in calamities.
Eventually people rejected the interweaving of the state and religion.
And this rejection came most radically
in the form of 2 great 18th century revolutions.
In one of these revolutions—the French Revolution—
the revolutionaries tried to eradicate the Church altogether,
killing or exiling 10’s of 1000’s of Frenchmen
who simply wanted to practice their Catholic faith.
In the end this was not a separation of Church and state
but merely a new example of the old problem:
a new state persecuting the Church.
But the other revolution was very different.
That was the American revolution.
It did not seek to banish God or Christ, or Christians or Churches
from it’s shores.
In fact the founding fathers saw religion
not only as a fundament human right,
but also as essential to the success of the American experiment.
They believed that the only way America could have
a moral and just government was if it had a moral and just people.
And they believed that religion was essential for this to happen.
As George Washington himself wrote in his Farewell Address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,
religion and morality are indispensable supports….”
And he flatly rejected the idea that
“Morality can be maintained without religion.”
And here we come back to Jesus’ teaching about Caesar and God.
Yes, the government has a legitimate autonomy from the Church.
But no government can ever usurp God’s authority,
whether by suppressing the rights God has given to the people,
or by redefining good as evil, or truth and lies.
Granted, Churchmen have sometimes failed to recognize
the legitimate authority of the secular governments,
and so many times had to hang their heads in shame.
But when Churchmen have simply stuck
to teaching the justice and morality passed on to us by Christ
–of reminding Caesar exactly what it is that belongs to God–
they have fulfilled their God-given mission
and advanced the good of all mankind.
Of course, some today continue to vehemently disagree
even with this limited form of “interference” by the Church.
They say if religious people follow their Churches’
moral teaching when they vote
then Churches will wind up controlling the state.
And they ask, how can there be religious freedom
if we impose one denomination’s morals on the whole society?
The thing is, some basic moral principles transcend denominational teaching
—they are not merely the teaching of “the Church” but
part of what philosophers call the “Natural Law,”
or what the Declaration of Independence calls
“the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
These are moral principles that are so basic that any rational human being
should figure them out all on their own
without a priest or minister teaching them.
For example, any rational thinking person can figure out
that it’s wrong to rape or to intentionally kill innocent people.
Unfortunately, though, all to often we don’t think rationally
—we let our passions, like hatred or greed, lead us in our actions.
And sometimes we just don’t have time to sit and think things through,
as if we were all professional philosophers.
So it’s important for someone—like the Church–to call us to task,
and to obey “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—the Natural Law.
Because without that
governments will inevitably enact laws
that are contrary to both human reason
and the good that our creator intended:
all we will have is codified injustice.
For example, they might enact and enforce laws
that deny the natural God-given
right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”;
or the God-given freedom of religion or speech.
Clearly, no merely “Human Law” can be “good” or just or even binding
if it contravenes “Natural Law.”
And so we see a 2nd facet of Christ’s saying today:
we must obey Caesar only as long as
Caesar is consistent with the truth that God imprints
in the hearts and reason of all men, religious or not.
Even if man needs to be reminded of these truths
through the efforts of the Catholic Church,
or amateur philosophers like the founders of our great nation.
But how do we apply Christ’s teaching about Caesar and God in 2011?
In today’s Gospel the Herodians come to Jesus with flattering words:
“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.”
But Jesus does not respond so sweetly.
Instead he calls them what they are: “hypocrites,”
they don’t really want the truth from Jesus;
and they don’t really want him to “teach” them “the way of God”;
and while they call themselves “Jews”
they have chosen to render to Caesar
what belongs to God alone.
Today millions of Catholics do the same thing.
For 38 years Human Law has established a false right to kill unborn babies.
And for 38 years Catholics have gone to the polls and voted for candidates
who defend, support and encourage this abomination.
Like the Herodians 2000 years ago, these so called “Catholics”
choose opinion over truth.
They know the Church teaches infallibly that
abortion is always a grave moral evil.
And they know that the popes have made it clear
that unlike any other issue today,
except same-sex marriage,
abortion is non-negotiable in the political realm.
But even give all that, millions of Catholics still give more credit
to public opinion polls, or to the opinion of the media or a political party,
than to the truth taught by the Church.
They say “I know the Church teaches abortion is wrong…But I think ….”
They can think what ever they want, but they can’t say “I’m a good Catholic”
if they reject Catholic teaching.
A person who does that is called, like the Herodians, a hypocrite.
But it’s not just the teaching of the Church that condemns abortion
—it’s the Natural Law itself.
Every rational human being should know that
there is absolutely no principle more fundamental in the Natural Law
than the absolute right to life of the innocent.
What good is a right to health insurance or economic security or anything else
if there is no right to life?
Any candidate who says he stands for justice
but then refuses to protect this most foundational right
that candidate, like the Herodians,
has given Caesar authority over the things of God
and, like them, is nothing less than a hypocrite.
And, frankly, a Catholic who supports or votes for that candidate
is an even worse hypocrite.
Because while Jesus calls the Herodians “hypocrites” once in today’s Gospel,
in the very next chapter of Matthew Christ turns on the Pharisees
and calls them hypocrites 6 times.
They’re worse than the Herodians
because they should know better than to play games with God’s law.
Catholics who support pro-abortion politicians should also know better.
And they should listen to the warning Christ reserves for Pharisees:
“”Woe to you, …Pharisees, hypocrites!
…You serpents, you brood of vipers,
how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
Finally, some say,
“Father, I understand all that…but with the economy the way it is….
I have to vote for a candidate who will fix things.”
I am very sympathetic to the pain, confusion and fear
the economy is causing people.
But remember, in today’s Gospel,
what does Jesus have in his hand that he says belongs to Caesar?
A Roman coin: money.
This reveals a 3rd facet of this text:
Jesus doesn’t care a whole lot about money
—it’s part of the world, not part of God.
Who was it that gave you all you have
—the money and the skills and the breaks to have it all?
Was it Caesar, or was it God?
Try as it might, can the government Caesar stop stock market crashes?
It can’t even balance its own books,
how can we expect it to really “fix” all of our economic problems?
And at night is it Caesar you pray to
or do you pray to God
to bring us back from the precipice?
Remember what Jesus says elsewhere:
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap
…Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’
….But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be yours as well.”
In the coming days, weeks and months, we face some very important decisions.
But when you make those decisions, ask yourself:
when the day of judgment comes
what will you say to Christ, the true king of the world?
Will you have to explain why you joined the other bad Catholics
who were willing to render unto Caesar what really belonged to God;
who were more concerned with Human Laws, personal opinions,
parties ideology, or even their bank accounts,
than with the most simple and fundament demands of justice?
What will you say to Christ?
And what will Christ say to you?
Let us pray that it will not be those 2 terrible words
he once spoke to the Herodians and Pharisee’s: