ORDINARY 29 (A)
Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar & to God what belongs to God.
– Mt. 22: 21
This really does not answer the question put to Jesus – He was side stepping the trap they had laid for Him. Some questions simply to not admit of a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Nevertheless, the problem of the relationship of Church & State, of religion to the civil powers, remains as timely today as it was then. How do we discern what belongs to Caesar & what belongs to God when the two often overlap?
The dilemma was recently highlighted by two events: the new immigration law in Alabama, & the plan to force all health insurers to pay for contraception by the Federal government. The former seems to have been resolved by a judge’s ruling, while the latter has prompted the U.S. Catholic bishops to form a special Ad Hoc committee to deal with the issue.
We often forget that the principle of the separation of Church & State was included in our national constitution by Churchmen who feared religion being dictated to by the state as the British crown had done. It was to protect the Church from the State, not the other way around. Our Lord’s real response to the question for today was to give His life on the Cross. He provided the general rule, but we are charged with working out the specifics.
The general rule is that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, & soul, & love our neighbor as our self. He devoted His entire ministry to interpreting this law for all time & situations. What is at stake here is man’s inherent, God-given right to his neighbor’s love. That is the precise meaning of human dignity, so called. The State possesses neither the power to confer it nor the power to usurp it; but it does have the clear duty to protect & secure it. When government carries out this function, the demands of our loyalty to God & country remain compatible, & we can kneel to God & doff our hats to the State simultaneously. When government policy seeks to institutionalize the denial of basic human rights, we can no longer do the two things at once. Then we are forced into the choice of either taking off our hats or remaining on our knees.
The early Christians faced this challenge when the Roman State insisted that they assert that Caesar, meaning the State, was Lord, not Christ. Many died for their convictions. Saying ‘yes’ to the hard demands of one’s country can be a manifestation of a noble patriotism, but there are times when precisely the opposite is true. There are times when a noble patriotism comes in the form of an emphatic ‘no!’ There are times when the true patriot must say, “This nation under God,” not to provide comfort but to disturb. There are times when “This nation under God” means “This nation under the judgment of God, as well as under His protection.”
To say that Church & State must be kept separate is not the same as saying religion & politics must be kept apart. A human being does not have two consciences, one for judging religious questions, one for judging political questions. The questions “What is God’s?” & “What is Caesar’s?” converge in the one & only conscience of a person who would seek to answer them. The conscience that tells him/her that all people are made in God’s image & all possess the inherent, God-given right to love & respect, is the same conscience that tells him/her to oppose a political system which denies man’s inherent dignity.
The story is told of four angels watching God create the world. The first asked “Why did He make it?” “How did He make it?” asked the second. “Give it to me” demanded the third. “It is so marvelous! Let me go & take care of it!” said the fourth. The first question is the philosophical approach. The second is the scientific approach. The third is the selfish approach, while the last one is the religious approach which acknowledges that all is God’s. All the lands, skies, waters, animals, & people are God’s. The people include the proud & the humble, the rich & the poor, the Caesars & the subjects, without distinction. In the Christian scheme of things, what belongs to Caesar is a whole lot less than what belongs to God. AMEN!