16 Oct, Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s Christians are called to live in a very pluralist world, that presents us with huge challenges. Only the grace of God and the depth of our convictions will enable our faith to survive and to thrive in a secular society. But then, throughout history the life of faith has often thriven in spite of unpromising circumstances, whether it was the Jews under the Persian king Cyrus or the early Christians under the harsh rule of imperial Rome.
Is 45:1, 4-6. The providence of God appointed the Persian Cyrus as the liberator of Israel from the exile in Babylon. The Lord can use any instrument he chooses to foster his plan.
1 Thess 1:1-5. In the opening lines of his very first epistle, Paul assures his readers that he prays for them and is glad for their zeal as converts.
Mt 22:15-21. Jesus refused to be drawn into a sterile political argument, about paying taxes to Caesar. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
– for harmonious relations between church and state in seeking the common good of our people.
– that the leaders in each sphere may recognise and respect the legitimate concerns of the other.
– that Christians and citizens will always act with restraint, tolerance and goodwill.
– that all who are caught up in materialism may look again at their values and priorities, and remember that “man does not live on bread alone”.
Render To Caesar (Liam Swords)
No sooner had the Berlin Wall fallen, marking the end of the Cold War, than another ominous divide in our world made its appearance. This new division is between the Muslim world and what was once the Christian West. The Muslim world has experienced an extraordinary growth in fundamentalism. Many countries there have imposed or are seeking to impose the law of the Koran as the law of the state. Algeria in North Africa, just off the southern tip of Europe, is presently the scene of a murderous East-West conflict. Some European countries feel threatened, particularly France, with its large Muslim population and close historical ties with Algeria. Already controversy has broken out there, with Muslim demands that their schoolgirls be allowed to wear the veil in French public schools. Strange how people so often adopt the attitudes and strategies of their adversaries. Muslim fundamentalism in Arab countries has been matched by a noticeable “move to the right” in western countries. Not surprisingly, this is most aparent in France where the extreme right-wing National Front have made extraordinary gains in recent elections. Even the more moderate mainstream parties are calling for tighter immigration laws. The signs for the future are ominous, to say the least.
The clash between religion and the secular state is not new.
The history of the Christian West is largely a history of this conflict. For the first few centuries of its existence, the Christian religion was fiercely persecuted by the state, leaving in its wake, a bloody trail of martyrs. All that changed with the conversion of the emperor Constantine. Soon Christianity became the state religion. Now the boot was on the other foot. The high point of the power of religion came at Canossa in the high Middle Ages when an excommunicated emperor knelt in the snow and humbly submitted to a pope to regain his imperial crown. In the Caesar-God contest, the first round went decidedly to God. All throughout the Middle Ages the church extended its sphere of influence into the secular domain. With the break-up of Christianity in the sixteenth century the process began to reverse. The French Revolution marked a decisive turning point, this time in favour of the state. Napoleon made the point dramatically, when he took the imperial crown from the pope and placed it himself on his ownhead. Ever since the state has been clawing back the ground once usurped by the church. And understandably, the church has ceded its former influence reluctantly. The boot has changed feet once more.
Today’s gospel, with its famous “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” has a particular topicality in our world.
While the principle enunciated by Christ in the gospel is clear and unambiguous, its application in particular circumstances is quite another matter. The Catholic Church Catechism points out three circumstances where citizens are obliged in conscience to refuse obedience to the civil authorities. They are when the laws are “contrary to the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons and to the teachings of the gospel.” The principle is clear. However, its application is not so simple, as the decision by the Irish Supreme Court in the famous “X-case” revealed. Invoking the constitutional rights of persons, that decision left the legal position regarding abortion, in the eyes of many, in a worse state than before.
The complexity of these issues often render them unsuitable topics for the pulpit. What the preacher can and must do, is advise believers on the obligation of Christian behaviour in all circumstances. No matter how deeply they hold their convictions or how warmly they espouse their causes, they must never resort to violence. And that includes intimidation in all its forms. Muscular crusades, whether modern or medieval, cause irreparable harm. The end never justifies the means. We live, even in Ireland, in a world of pluralism. There are others whose principles and beliefs differ radically from ours. The state must also take cognisance of them. Our only resort is persuasion. Persuasion is always a gentle art. We best persuade by living our Christian lives to the full, remembering always that “the anger of man works not the justice of God.”
A live Church (Patrick Rogers)
In A Matter of Life and Death, John Taylor writes that God is not primarily concerned as to whether we are religious or not. What is fundamentally important to God is whether or not we are alive. If our religion makes us more fully alive, more courageous, more caring – more involved in life – then God is in it, But if religion inhibits our capacity for life or makes us run away from life then surely God is against it just as Jesus was. The question of Deuteronomy and of the missionary is simple: Are you alive or dead? Is our community alive or dead? What is the evidence? Much of life is not written in our genes or our environment. Do we choose life? Why are so many people only half alive? Why are little children more vividly alive than their parents? Taylor insists that the most violent epidemic gripping our society in a vice is accede, a sleeping sickness, a kind of pervasive apathy the “I can’t be bothered” “It is nothing to do with me” “Here l am, send someone else” syndrome.
In today’s world the pervasive mood is often one of anxiety – wages have dropped, jobs and businesses are insecure, sex can kill and such killer diseases as flu and malaria are back as violent as ever. Many speak of “cocooning” in hope that someday they will wake up and find the bad times gone forever.
To give credit to the writer of Deuteronomy, despite all the disaster and holocausts which Israel had suffered, he did not give up hope. He believed in the loving God of the Exodus. No situation ever after was without hope. But he was blunt. Our choices are vital. Are we willing to pay the cost to choose life? Like Psalm 95 he believed in the importance of “today” which is all the time we’ve got. If one does not start a project within seventy-two hours, business experts tell us we will never do it. One thinks of that famous day in August 386 in Milan when Augustine was tormented and going mad, choosing pleasure instead of chastity. In tears he flung himself down beneath a fig tree, “How long will I go on saying tomorrow? Suddenly he heard a child singing a song “Take and read” and he opened a nearby Bible at Romans 13:13-14. So his life was changed from that moment and as we say the rest is history. Unfortunately the chorus of women in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral speaks for all of us:
We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.
There have been oppression and luxury,
There have been poverty and licence,
There has been minor injustice.
Yet we have gone on living,
Living and partly living.
For two thousand years Christianity has been the spiritual force continually reshaping the history of Europe. We are fortunate to have seen it outlive with renewed vigour the most systematic and brutal rivals it ever had in Nazism and Communism. Now it is in crisis through the indifference of many of its members. So much depends on our choices; will we choose what can give us true life, or will we fritter away our precious opportunities?
To describe the high path to life and truth, the Gospel uses many figures of speech – bread, light, the door, the way, the shepherd, the vine. It means that Jesus is what men and women must have and long to have in order to be able truly to live. When Jesus says “It is I” or “I am” he is presenting him self as the one for whom the world is waiting, the one who satisfies all longing.
God and Caesar (John Walsh)
Before being called by Christ to be one of his twelve Apostles, St Matthew was a tax collector operating in a customs house, somewhere in the north of Galilee. Since this profession required that he be able to read, write and especially keep records, these skills he would put to good use in writing his gospel account of Jesus’ mission. His literary style, as an evangelist, may be more artificial than that of St Luke, but there is no doubt that the gospel excerpt you have just heard is truly dramatic. The question put to Jesus, as to whether it was permissible for Jews to pay tribute to Caesar, gives a clear insight into the minds and strategy of the Pharisees. They were endeavouring to walk Jesus into a political trap that would set him at odds with the Roman authorities, who were the rulers of Israel at that time, or, failing that, would discredit him before his own people. To avoid giving rise to suspicion of their intent, they decided not to get involved personally themselves. They sent some of their disciles along to Christ instead. It is quite likely that the leaders of the Pharisees stayed in the background because they wanted the followers of Herod, the Roman appointed tetrarch of Galilee, to take part also in the plot against Jesus, even though these Herodians, who openly advocated cooperation with the Romans, were normally their most bitter enemies.
The feigned tributes to Jesus by this delegation, mention of his honesty, his fearlessness, his disregard for the status of those he encountered, all this flattery coming from people who normally were hostile to Christ merely highlights the hypocrisy of their praise. Then the trap was sprung: “tell us what is your own opinion? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Were Christ to answer, “Pay the tax,” then he would stand accused of collaboration with the Roman oppressors, and would incur the scorn of ordinary Jews each of whom had to pay a poll tax, from the age of twelve for women and fourteen for men. Were he to advocate non-payment, he could be arrested for sedition by the Roman authorities. Jesus’ response, however, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” left them confounded, and they slunk away. But Jesus’ reply left the matter in suspense, because it did not touch upon the right of the Romans to rule Israel, nor did it enumerate precisely the things o Caesar or those of God.
These opposing claims of God and state were left to be decided by the informed conscience of each individual, and still are to this day. What must be kept in mind is the warning of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, that “no one can serve two masters; one cannot be the slave of both God and wealth” (Mt 6:24). Wealth in early OT times was seen as created by God, and bestowed on patriarchs, kings and leaders who had roles of special responsibility. Later on, wealth ceased to be regarded as a gift from God. “Woe to those who join house to house and field to field, until everywhere belongs to them,” Isaiah warned (Is 5:8), and Jesus himself said, “alas for you who are rich; you are having your life of ease now” (Lk 6:24). The world and all its resources were created by God for the benefit of all human beings without exception, and this must usually obtain alongside the right to private property, whether inherited or acquired by personal enterprise. It is the task of government to seek a balance between these objetives that will lead to the common good of all those governed. And taxation is still one of the most common means of achieving this.
But, just as with the Jews in the time of our Lord, people nowadays do not take kindly to having a share of their earnings taken from them in the form of tax. But, whereas the taxes then in Israel, for the most part, went to swell the coffers of the authorities in Rome, where slavery was a substantial economic factor as well for all its citizens, taxes collected nowadays, in this country for example, go towards caring for the sick, the elderly, the permanently disabled, the huge cost of maintaining the infrastructure of the state. We should never forget that we have a dual set of responsibilities, towards God and towards our neighbour in society. In the latter, state authorities have a major role to play, and have a right to our cooperation in their endeavour to bring about the material welfare of all citizens. We fulfil our obligations towards achieving that by obeying the just laws of the state, by paying our lawful taxes, and by helping to bring about the common good at all times.
First Reading: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him-and the gates shall not be closed: For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”