~ Homily given at Saint Augustine and Sacred Heart parishes in Jeffersonville, IN - October 15-16, 2011: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Not long after the earthquake that hit Virginia and shook much of the central east coast, including Washington, D.C., I came across a reflection that highlighted something simple and yet profound. Now, I don’t remember who wrote it or, for that matter, how I even came across it, but nonetheless the point that the author made stuck with me. In it, the author focused on the earthquake’s effect on the operations of our nation’s capital, causing government offices and federal courts to close for the day. What the author found to be so profound about this is that the government of what is arguably the most powerful nation in the world was forced to close shop and go home by a power over which it has no control… a natural phenomenon or, what we might call, an act of God. In other words, for a brief time on an August afternoon, the men and women who govern our nation were faced with the fact that, in reality, a greater power was in control of what would happen that day. The author concludes without making any judgments about the earthquake being a manifestation of God’s wrath (which I remember being somewhat popular at the time), but rather expresses his humble satisfaction in this reminder that, in spite of the powers of principalities that surround us, God still truly is in control.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus finds himself in a “double-bind.” The Pharisees, feeling unjustly indicted after hearing the parables Jesus was teaching—the parables we’ve heard over the past three weeks—go off to plot their revenge against him. After all, they believe themselves to be the acknowledged religious authority and so they refuse to be undermined by Jesus. Soon, they send their “cronies” to test Jesus and to see if they can catch him making a comment that they can use to turn people against him. The double trouble comes in the form of the Herodians, King Herod’s cronies who many commentators suspect were the ones responsible for collecting taxes. The test that the disciples of the Pharisees propose is essentially a “catch 22” in which a key phrase has a double meaning and, thus, can trap the respondent into making an answer he or she wouldn’t otherwise make. In this context, the phrase “is it lawful” would have conveyed two meanings. For the Pharisees, the law that they are concerned with is the Law of Moses, which states that allegiance is to be paid to God alone (thus, the first commandment: “I am the Lord, your God. You shall not have strange gods before me.”). And so, paying the census tax—at least to them—was akin to “splitting” your allegiance between Yahweh and someone else. For the Herodians, the law they were concerned with is the civil law, in which it is a crime on the level of treason to refuse to pay the tax. Thus, to not pay the tax is akin to an act of a revolutionary, which is something the Romans were quite sensitive about. And so we see Jesus’ double bind. If he says that it is lawful to pay the census tax, then he is contradicting the Mosaic Law and splitting his allegiance between God and Caesar. On the other hand, if he says that it is not lawful, the Herodians will likely report him as “inciting acts against Caesar,” which will probably get him arrested.
As Jesus is wont to do, however, he sees the trap for what it is and steps right around it. He sees the limited perspective with which they both viewed the problem and then expands it to show them yet a third solution, the “both/and.” Jesus’ answer—“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God”—demonstrates that he sees no conflict in paying the tax on one hand and maintaining allegiance to God alone on the other. In other words, Jesus is saying that what Caesar demands is of little accord, so pay it if you must, but do not let it distract you from giving to God his just due, which is of much greater importance.
For us, this calls us to consider how we live our lives as Christians subject to a government that is at times hostile to our religious convictions. Are we going to cower, sulking frustratedly because our government doesn’t rule the way we’d like it to (which is the model put forth by the Pharisees)? Or will we acknowledge that our God is in control, in spite of our government’s limitations, and realize that what we owe God is of much greater importance than whatever it is our government exacts of us? The thing that we tend to overlook, it seems, is not what we owe to the government (I suspect that no one here is unaware of what they owe to them), but rather what we owe to God. Now, perhaps at this point you are looking at me and asking, “What exactly do we owe to God?”
Well, in a word, everything. There’s nothing that we have in this world that hasn’t come from God and so to “repay … to God what belongs to God” means that in some way we owe him everything we have. However, let’s take a look at the Psalm that we sang today to see if we can get a little more specific. The psalmist states, “Give the Lord, you family of nations, give the Lord glory and praise; give the Lord the glory due his name! Bring gifts and enter his courts.” Therefore, it seems that our worship is what we owe God, first and foremost. You know, as Americans, we have a certain cultural attitude in which we feel obliged at times to “keep the score even.” In other words, when we receive a gift or kindness from others, we feel like we are then in debt to the other person and thus look for some way to repay their kindness. When we are faced with the graciousness of God, however, we are forced to acknowledge that we are unable to repay God for what he has given to us. Yet, we tend to discount the simple acts that God desires from us. We fail to recognize that, in truth, there is absolutely nothing that can take the place of our coming together as a faith community to worship God in thanksgiving for his gifts that sustain us each and every day. From this standpoint, then, it makes sense that giving glory to God is our first priority. Of course, that’s not all we are called to do. Our giving back to God from the gifts he’s given us cannot be limited simply to a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning; rather it must spill forth into our daily lives. “Tell his glory among the nations,” the psalmist proclaims, “among all peoples [tell] his wondrous deeds.” At the end of each Mass, we are sent forth into the world to bring the Good News we celebrate here into our homes, our communities, and our workplaces, completing “works of faith” and “labors of love,” all the while “enduring in hope”—true hope—that God indeed is in control and that one day we will see him face to face.
My brothers and sisters, when earthquakes shake our lives—whether they be physical acts of nature or, more commonly, events that shake up the status quo of our lives—we are forced to face the ominous question: “Who really is in control here?” For some, the answer is frightening: a cold, malicious God who exacts suffering on both good and bad, seemingly without discretion, or worse yet no God at all, leaving them with no way to ascribe meaning to the suffering which they endure. For us, however, it is God, our Father and Mother, who protects us and nourishes us and most importantly never abandons us, even if we try to abandon him.
Perhaps we can remember this today as we do what the psalmist charges us to do, “bringing our gifts into his courts” so as to repay to the Lord what truly belongs to him, “the glory due his name.” The glory that is our lives of service, gratuitously given and united to the one who paid the price for us all, Jesus our Lord.