ORDINARY 29 (A)
Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
- Mt. 22: 21
Our Lord’s response here is more of an evasive maneuver to avoid an obvious trap than a profound pronouncement on the relationship between Church and state. He divides the question: on the one hand, structures of government (things that have to do with Caesar) are necessary in human life. But on the other hand, such structures must never be allowed to restrict, confine or inhibit the things of God, which are primary. As Jesus made clear to Pilate, even the power which the state has over us comes from God & therefore is ultimately answerable to God.
In a summer religious camp for children, there was a sign that read “The reason God made poison ivy is because He wanted us to know there are certain things we should keep our cotton-picking hands off of.” This is as old as Adam & Eve: too often we humans seem to think that because we have the ability or power to do something that gives us the right to do it. We forget that simply because one can kill another human being doesn’t mean we have the right to.
Left to our own devices, we humans rarely, if ever, can reach a consensus on what is right & wrong. Rampant moral confusion in our world today provides abundant evidence of what happens when we try to do so without God as a fundamental premise. Yes, we do have God-given intelligence to figure out a great deal for ourselves, but the basic principles must come from a wisdom that is far deeper than ours.
It is for that wisdom that the Church presumes to speak through her teaching. I say “presumes” since it might seem presumptuous that any group of humans (however enlightened) would claim to speak for God. But this misses the point that Christ promised to be with His Church until the end of time & sent the Holy Spirit to lead her into truth. Jesus could keep such a promise only if He were divine.
The Church’s job resembles that of the Coast Guard: to provide charts & rescue. Why? Because it is what our Lord Himself did. Whatever belongs to Caesar (& I don’t just mean government institutions, but everywhere we have extended our control) is just & proper; but what we too easily forget is that the things of God provide the framework within which everything else can produce abundant life. A life which provides joy even in the midst of adversity is what makes living worthwhile.
Anyone who shuns God is depriving themselves of that kind of life. One young man who was raised without any religious upbringing & who had indulged his appetites with abandon came ruefully to recognize that “If this is all there is to life, it isn’t worth living.” Recognizing our limitations is the first step to spiritual health. God’s moral prescriptions are not there to frustrate us but to help us enjoy the abundant life, which He wants us to have. Experience & history show us that trying to live life exclusively on our own terms results in shipwreck every time. Refusing to repay to God what is God’s makes the things of Caesar worthless. AMEN!