Mass readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 45.1, 4-6 Psalm 96.1-10 1 Thessalonians 1.1-5 Matthew 22.15-21
The famous story of the silver denarius is understood as Jesus’ enemies trying to trap him. They aren’t looking for an answer to a theological problem. The text says as much; and we marvel at how Jesus, not only avoids the trap, but leaves his enemies in confusion. He throws the matter back to them saying, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Any rational person can work out that everything is God’s; nonetheless, Caesar’s authority is s derived from God. That idea was long established in Judaism, and we see it expressed by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading. Here the prophet says on God’s behalf that the foreign Persian King Cyrus is God’s anointed, that is, he is a kind of “christ” to the Jewish people, because he delivers them from exile and restores them to their lands in Judea. We know that Cyrus does not allow them to have their own king, but gives them some measure of autonomy, especially with respect to their religion, as a province of his empire. So, in fulfilling God’s will that the Jews should return to Jerusalem, Cyrus is God’s servant. And by all accounts, as ancient imperial rulers go, Cyrus was pretty good, ruling with a light touch his subject peoples provided they paid their taxes.
And Jesus’ enemies know all this being well versed in the scriptures. They can’t answer back because behind what Jesus has said is the question, “Why has God delivered Israel into the hands of the Roman emperor?” Centuries before this, the kingdom of Israel fell and its people went into exile because of the corruption of its leadership. The situation at Jesus’ time, with Judea and Jerusalem again incorporated into a foreign empire (this time the Roman Empire) implied that again it was because a corrupt and corrupting ruling class led the people to this sorry state.
Our tradition, building upon Judaism, understands that God’s providence does not work according to how we want things to unfold. From time to time, authority, political power over us is handed to those who are our enemies, those who are not Christian, or are only nominally so. And this raises questions as to how we are to relate to them, what obedience and honour we owe them; but also calls us to self-examination as we try to figure out what God’s purpose is in allowing a particular situation to persist: are we being chastised? Are we called to learn something? Are we being summoned to return to God by our suffering under an authority that operates contrary to Christ? And how will that return be made? By revolution? By peaceful reform? By our own conversion and the evangelization of our society? By the destruction of everything, and the hard work of rebuilding from the ruins as the Jews did under a foreign ruler, King Cyrus?
We look at the international situation and the question arises; how has this been allowed to happen? Aren’t the best and brightest at work on our behalf in the world? Or do they work for other interests? Their own? Or maybe, they aren’t that bright.
We look at our economic situation, the obvious affordability crisis that is robbing so many young people of hope, that is creating anxiety among so many others – those who govern bear a heavy responsibility, and we cannot say that the mismanagement is God’s will. Ratherer, we need to acknowledge our complicity in the policies that have led to our situation; how we created a political culture that gave us the leadership we have, and the limited alternatives we possess. Our situation is largely the product of our collective vices rather than our virtues dictating our choices. To quote the 20th century cynic H.L. Mencken,
“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Now Catholic teaching acknowledges the problems of governance, but does not advocate anarchy. We recognize the need for authority. Our catechism states: “Every human community needs an authority to govern it (CCC1898) and we are required “to give due honour to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.” (CCC1900)
However, we also hold that authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself – neither the city councillor nor the parish priest has legitimacy because they hold office. It’s not because they won votes or have a written commission from a higher authority. They have authority because they do the job as constituted, follow the law, and perform their proper roles within society respecting the limitations placed on them, working within their mandate for the people’s good.
Israel’s first king, Saul, fell from grace despite receiving the anointing of God from the prophet Samuel. He had authority given to him by God but he abused it, and presumed to expand his role beyond that of king. We often forget that his sin against God was in performing a sacrifice, that is, usurping the role of the priest. He involved himself in things that did not pertain to his office and for which he was not competent: spiritual issues, religious questions, matters of worship. And while some may look on what he did as a minor violation, that taking over the role of religious leadership, even temporarily, created a dangerous precedent. And we know from history what happens when leaders begin to think themselves the arbiters of morality; when they presume to dictate on matters of worship especially when they forbid it; when they decide how the people’s religion is to be lived. By doing this they make themselves unaccountable to anyone or anything as they attempt to exchange their own law for God’s law. But God’s law cannot be changed, and for violating it, for leading us to do the same, the consequences are severe, maybe total destruction.
We’ve lately learned that at public ceremonies, Canadian Armed Forces chaplains are not to offer prayer, to invoke God – these are the only clergy employed by the state to perform their roles as ministers, priests, imams, rabbis, etc. Instead, they can offer patriotic and secular slogans of unity and pride in nation. When questioned about this in parliament recently, the government’s spokesman ducked the matter of prayer, and said that the nation will be called on November 11 to remember. The apparent rationale here is that talk of a divinity may offend some.
One wonders if the government has forgotten the constitution under which it operates. The 1982 Constitution Act’s first clause states that “… Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” That recognition of God goes back even further through centuries of English constitutional law.
It’s fascinating to consider how the famous words of Jesus have been historically distorted by civil authorities to justify excluding the Church from discussions of public importance, as if giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s meant all earthly matters were the strict purview of the state, and what was God’s, in the sense of religion, were matters of the life hereafter. So, bishops, get your nose out of things, and go back to your rosaries.
This disregards the fact, often repeated here, that the moral foundations of our civilization are Christian, and that politicians are far from being the most qualified to discuss great philosophical questions and moral matters; that the Church serves as an important check on worldly power.
But more importantly, while we as a civil society may differ in our opinions on what is right and good, the principle of God’s dominion over all things is also an important check on our society as it recalls us all to an ultimate accountability. To say there is a God is to say there is truth; that justice is real and not just a collection of human social conventions; that love is not found in the satisfaction of desire, but in sacrifice for others. Indeed, come Remembrance Day, as we are constrained in our national act of remembrance, we ought to recall that those who rallied to the flag in the past, and fought for the good, did so because of convictions that arose from their faith in God no matter how well they knew their creed.
May God have mercy on this country as it is prompted to forget what it owes to God; but may we here gathered never forget and by grace know what must be done to save ourselves and those we love, and our nation as a whole.