29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 22, 2017
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
This is a very interesting text to read less than 3 weeks before the elections
Some try to use this text to tell the Church to mind it’s own business
and stay out of public affairs, especially elections
Others, however, use it to promote the Church’s involvement in politics.
So what is the meaning of Christ’s dichotomy between Caesar and God?
Like most texts in Scripture, this one has multiple layers and facets.
First, Jesus is talking about relationship between the Church and the state.
Historically, the Old Testament tells us that
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 Jewish religious monarchy.
And the Pharisees, devout Jews who longed for the coming of the Messiah
who would reestablish 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 in their political debate,
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 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.”
And then remember the words from today’s 1st reading from Isaiah,
as God says to Cyrus the Persian,
one of the foreign pagan kings who ruled over Israel:
“For the sake ….of Israel…
I have called you by your name, giving you a title….”
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 based 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:
sometimes for good and noble reasons,
but also, sometimes for the bad intentions of certain men in the Church.
In my opinion, the more closely the church directly has involved itself in secular government,
the more likely it was to be involved in calamities.
Eventually western society 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 from its 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 warned us that:
“reason and experience both forbid us to expect
that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
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.
But when Churchmen have simply stuck
to teaching the truth 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 indirect “interference” by the Church.
They say, if people follow their Churches’ moral teaching when they vote
that would be imposing 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.”
Moral principles so basic that any rational human being
should be able to figure them out all on their own without a priest teaching them.
For example, any rational thinking person can figure out
that it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent people.
Unfortunately, though, all too often we don’t think rationally
—we let our passions, like hatred or greed, or envy or lust, 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,
to think, 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:
and all we will have is codified confusion, legalized injustice.
For example, they might enact 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 from time to time,
by the Church, or by amateur philosophers like the founders of our great nation.
But how do we apply Christ’s teaching about Caesar and God in 2017?
In today’s Gospel the Herodians come to Jesus with flattering words:
“we know … that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
…you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion.”
But Jesus does not respond so sweetly.
Instead he calls them what they are: “hypocrites,”
because they don’t really want the truth from Jesus;
and they don’t really want him to “teach” them “the way of God”;
the pro-Roman “Jews”
they have chosen to render to Caesar what belongs to God alone.
Today millions of Catholics do the same thing.
44 years ago Human Law discovered something in our constitution
that no one ever knew was there: a false right to kill unborn babies.
“False” because it is directly in opposition to the natural law
that prohibits us from killing innocent human life,
and to particularly protect the lives of children.
But ever since the false right to abortion was discovered,
all sorts of other new false rights have followed,
like the right to force others pay for your medical costs,
like contraception, even when they consider them grossly immoral,
or the right for two men or two women to marry each other,
even though that is so obviously contrary to the natural law
that no society in the history of the world has ever recognized it.
The thing is, if we reject one part, or three parts of the Natural Law,
how do have a claim on the rest of it?
How can we say that God gives us the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,
if we don’t believe that God has established any rights or duties at all
And yet, for 44 years isn’t this exactly what Americans have been doing
in the voting booth?
Any candidate who says he stands for human rights
but supports government policies that override
“the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,”
that candidate, like the Herodians,
has given Caesar authority over the things of God
and, like them, is also nothing less than a hypocrite.
And, frankly, any 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 know the law of God
and should know better than to play games with it.
And Catholics know the Church teaches infallibly that
abortion, contraception and homosexual acts are grave moral evils,
as is forcing Christians to support these immoral acts.
But even so, 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 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,
“I vote for the candidate that will give me money, or help me pay my bills,”
and some say, “I vote for the candidate who won’t take my money in taxes,
and will allow me to make more money in a freer market.”
I am very sympathetic to economic concerns we all have.
But in today’s Gospel, what does Jesus have in his hand that belongs to Caesar?
A Roman coin: money.
This reveals a 3rd facet of this text: money isn’t that important to Jesus.
After all, who was it that gave you all you have
—or the money and skills, the health and the breaks, to get what you have?
Was it Caesar, or was it God?
And at night is it Caesar you pray to
or do you pray to God to bring us back from the precipice?
Can the government really guarantee your health and wealth?
Or can it, by itself protect us from the evil that might destroy us,
whether war, hurricanes, disease, old age…whatever?
Remember what Jesus says elsewhere:
“….seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be yours as well.”
Two weeks from now Virginians face some very important decisions.
But as you make those decisions, ask yourself: how will I explain this to Jesus?
How will you explain it to him if you rendered unto Caesar what really belonged to God?
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 both the Herodians and Pharisee’s: