Oct 18, 2014

29th Sunday: Our ultimate loyalty

"Whose image is this and whose inscription?"

Is 45:1, 4-6
1 Thes 1:1-5b
Mt: 22:15-21

I have a high school student in my parish who participates quite actively in the sport of fencing. It is a fast and athletic sport.  However, when he told me of his interest I was taken back for a moment because I was so accustomed to hearing about football, basketball, or soccer.  I never thought of fencing but it is a sport of great skill and he will go long distances to participate in that quick and calculated athletic event.

The main object of a fencing bout (what an individual "game" is called) is to score over your opponent before he does the same on you.  Obviously, all sports have the same goal. However, fencing is more precise and not like a football player who slams his entire body into his opponent or a basketball star who reaches high to block the opponent or grab the ball and run to score.

Each time a fencer scores a touch, he receives a point. Direct elimination matches consist of three three-minute periods. It would take great skill to dance around your opponent in a confusing manner to catch him off guard. “Touché!”

In a way, up until the scene of our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus was fencing with his opponents, the religious leaders of his time. It was not long until the Romans would participate in his sentence and death. But this Sunday we hear of a calculated attempt to trap Jesus. Like the skill of a good fencer, they now go in for the kill.

The Pharisees and Herodians who have no respect for Jesus and his opinion want to ultimately score and force Jesus to reveal exactly where his true loyalty lies.  Their intent is hardly benign and deliberately designed to throw Jesus off his feet - Touché!

What makes their calculated plan more sinister is the way in which they present themselves to Jesus: “Teacher, we know you are a truthful man . . . you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion . ..”  Right on the first move, not so correct on the second.  Jesus is THE truth but he cares much about how his teaching is accepted yet he is on to their sarcasm. Sorry guys, flattery will get you nowhere.  

Jesus is challenged by two branches of religious leaders. The Pharisees despised the Romans and in particular their heavy taxes and brutality. The Herodians on the other hand were somewhat sympathetic to the Romans in hopes for political favors and peace. It’s also interesting to note that the Pharisees and Herodians hated each other but both were strangely united on the common threat they perceived in Jesus. Both were intent on trapping Jesus with an almost no win question:  “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

If Jesus said the taxes should not be paid, he would please the Pharisees.  If he said they should be paid he would agree with the Herodians but become despised by his own people, his fellow Jews. With his insight in to human nature, especially their duplicity, he uses a common Jewish response and answers a question with a question: “Why are you testing me? . . .”  After he was shown the familiar Roman coin, he inquires: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

When he is told “Caesars,” he brilliantly turns the game on his malicious interrogators: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  Touché! His answer scores in his favor.  

Does this mean that Jesus views our American separation of Church and State as valid?  Obviously, he never had such a concept in mind.  In fact for most of human history, particularly in western Europe and the ancient middle East, such a separation was unheard of.  The Church and religion very much influenced the lives and government of its citizens. The law of God, the natural law, is at the basis of common law which influenced government as we know it today. 

Early Christians took the Caesar and God set up to heart for they knew that lawful citizenship was essential for daily life.  To pay taxes and enjoy the benefits of government protection was a good thing. 

However, Jesus’ implies that God ultimately is the one who governs our lives.  If we put his words in the context of his culture we can see how they are a blend of perfect balance but create delicate possibilities. For the early Christians the obligation of Emperor worship, or paying tribute and burning incense before an image of the Roman leader was more than they could stomach and a direct violation of such worship given only to God.

When the secular law of government contradicts that of the higher law of God, it leaves people of good will in a quandary of faith.  Is it lawful to resist or to capitulate? Our hot button social issues around abortion, marriage, end of life decisions, and the rights of individuals all become mixed in this fencing game.

Is the right to life a higher right than free choice?  If we “give to God what belongs to God,” then the answer is a resounding “yes” when applied to the matter of the innocent such as the unborn or the frail elderly. We must choose life and not burn incense on the altar of secular values which are clearly in opposition.  

Is marriage really fixed between a man and a woman or might there be some alternative and equally legitimate human relationship that would qualify as marriage?  If we follow the Scriptures, tradition and natural law as the Church does the answer is “no.” The obvious social and political tension created by such positions is a challenge to all people of good will who look beyond advantage or an effort to redefine something into a form it has never been and still call it the same thing.   

Such examples are familiar to us but also a clear demonstration of what Jesus implies.  Good citizenship, yes, but in the end God’s law must govern and form our moral and ethical decisions.  Secular government says nothing about morality, about good or bad.  That’s the purpose of faith and religion. 

Only Christianity?  Well, if we believe that Jesus is the Word of God, the mind and heart of God made human among us and that he came to uncover the Truth as revealed by God for all humanity, then we must decide.

What witnesses have we seen?  Martyrs, peaceful protestors, people of conviction and good will who speak up in order to influence right change and the common good of all are among the heroic and saintly who have given to God what is his. 

Jesus well knew these were his enemies and that he risked his own life in this confrontation but it does offer us a moral structure in which to live our lives both as good citizens and as faithful disciples of the Lord.  The tension created between the two loyalties is part of the Christian experience.

Our celebration of the Eucharist is an experience of family and a place that we can unite in a common cause – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Strengthened and formed by the Gospel and having fed on Christ himself, from here can go to love and serve; to influence the culture and present the truth with love.  Touché!