Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 18, 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3-5, 7-10
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Matthew 22:15-21

In 589 B.C., the Babylonians conquered the Israelites and took many of them back to Babylon. Fifty years later, the Persians led by Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonians. The Persian victory gave the Israelites hope that they might be set free. Cyrus was neither a Jew nor a believer, but the Israelites saw him as being sent to carry out God’s plans.

We cannot always say for sure what God’s plans are, but we certainly do know that He often works in mysterious ways.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees and followers of Herod devise a plot to trap Jesus since He had recognized their hypocrisy. They ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay tax to Rome or not. This is a trick question, since either way Jesus responds to the question would be unfavorable to the crowds. A yes will make Him seem to endorse Rome’s rule over the Jews, and a no will make Him look like He is a revolutionary enemy of Rome. Jesus would be seen by the people as either a traitor or a rebel, and His enemies will have trapped Him.

Jesus’ response to the question is unforeseen in its simplicity. His answer shows a difference between our lives as worldly citizens and as members of God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom is different from the city or country in which we live, but it does not need to diminish our patriotic bonds. The Kingdom is a further dimension in our lives, whose virtues are meant to help us to know our true destiny and thereby improve the places where we live. The compassion and charity required of us by God’s Kingdom should help us transform our world for the better. We live within the world as citizens who make others aware of a greater citizenship with greater responsibilities which we are all called to fulfill.

Jesus’ response is not just unexpected, but it is also challenging. The simplicity of Christ always confounds the complications inflicted upon the human soul by sin and error. He confounds His confronters with an answer that calls for a commitment and not just an acknowledgement. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. What are the things that are Caesar’s and what exactly belongs to God?

Caesar will claim as his own the authority over life and death. Caesar will impose the redefinition of the embodied and God-given sexuality of human beings through gender ideology. Caesar will impose the redefinition of marriage from its divinely instituted nature of a permanent and faithful covenant between one man and one woman open to God’s gift of children. Caesar will claim as his own the responsibilities of fathers and mothers in the education of their children. Caesar will seize as his own the freedom of assembly and authenticity of worship to suit his own purposes. Caesar will foment divisions and acrimony among peoples of different races to subjugate them in fear. Caesar will wage his wars for his own riches.

Caesar or the worldly city will certainly try to demand from us what it claims that we owe it and extract the payment from us in full. However, as conscientious citizens we also need to judge when the laws and customs of our country cease to respect the life and the human dignity God has given us. Not everything the world considers valuable is in fact valuable in the eyes of God. Not everything that the world prioritizes is in accord with the priorities of God as revealed to us. That which is legal is not necessarily that which is just.

As far as what belongs to God, I suppose the answer ultimately would be everything … even Caesar. The Israelites knew this when they accepted the pagan king Cyrus as a sign and instrument of God without letting him take the rightful place of God. The challenge for us now is to take a step back from the things of Caesar and to renew ourselves in the practice of faith and charity. Perhaps that is the best service we can give to a country and a world that too frequently seems lost in narcissism and pride.

In every age, every Caesar has put his image on coins of gold, to announce to the world Caesar’s warping of the Golden Rule, namely, “He who owns the gold makes the rules.” God has impressed His image upon the human person, to announce to the world that we are like Him, we are His, and we are called to love Him and our neighbor as ourselves. True worship sets us free, while idolatry — that is, worship of false gods, including any power that usurps God’s authority — manipulates us, enslaves us, and ultimately deprives us of life. Our human nature is such that we cannot separate God’s image from our being. We must remind each other of who we are and whose we are. We may form fellowships and organizations and even states, and we may rightly serve them with loyalty and patriotism if they are just, but our final and absolute loyalty belongs first and foremost to almighty God.

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