Sunday, October 19, 2008

Give to God what belongs to God

TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 19, 2008:

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” What do you think that Jesus means when he utters this phrase in our Gospel passage today? Is this a tract on proper church-state relations? Does Jesus mean that there is only so much out there for Ceasar and so much for God? That it should be divided as a child divides candy – one for you and one for me; one for Ceasar and one for God? He can hardly mean that there are some things that belong to Ceasar and other things that belong to God because that would suggest that reality is divisible into the secular and the sacred, as if the things we do for the State have nothing to do with God. And that is surely not right. Life is unified, not divided. In the deepest sense, everything belongs to God. So what does Jesus mean?

First, we have to recognize that the question from the Pharisees is a trap: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus responds “yes” then He is allying himself with the Roman occupation and domination of Israel and that would put Him in trouble with His fellow Jewish patriots. If He says “no” then He is in trouble with the Roman authorities and is liable to be arrested as encouraging rebellion and revolution. Does Jesus fall into the trap? No, instead He asks them for a denarius – the Roman coin used to pay the tax in question. Once they produce the coin, He is saying in effect to them, “I don’t have one – you do.” You have Ceasar’s coin. By using his coinage, his currency, you are the ones allying yourself to his system, accepting his rule, recognizing his empire, his authority. So, if you have taken his money, give him back his money. “Repay to Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar.” Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer because it is not a straight question posed to Him. It is a trap which He avoids.

But, as always Jesus surprises the crowd with the challenge He adds, “Repay to God what belongs to God.” Jesus is saying that the obligation to Ceasar stands under and is judged by an immeasurably higher obligation – to recognize the sovereignty of the Supreme Sovereign, to give what is due to the greatest emperor of all; that if you think you feel an obligation to the state, it can’t compare to the obligation you should feel to the God. Jesus uses this unexpected opportunity to remind the people of the first and greatest commandment, “You must do homage to the Lord, your God, Him alone must you serve.” Forget about smart questions intended to trap Jesus, instead, worship your God – not with mere externals as the Pharisees do, but from deep within your soul.

Jesus uses this chance to remind them of the importance of worshipping God. He reminds us today as well, that the Church we all belong to is above everything else a worshipping family. The Church reaches her full stature only when she falls on her knees in prayer. She stands straight and walks tall only when she bows her head in adoration. The care of the sick, the struggle for justice, the needs of the poor, the education of the young – all of these are essential to the mission of the Church, but they are meaningless unless they are connected to the highest function of the Church, which is the worship of the Almighty God. The Church is most supremely herself when she gathers in a building like this one to celebrate the Holy Mass. The Mass is the very summit of her activity, the apex, the Everest of her life. The spirit of the Church finds noble expression in the many works of service that we engage in, but it is to the worship of God that we must look to if we wish to discover her soul.

So, if we are a believing people, we must be a worshipping people. We cannot ignore the worship of God as a community. We have to look deep in our hearts and ask if we are all deeply and personally committed to that worship as individual members of this Church community. We see as the numbers of practicing Catholics drop, that worship is becoming less important in our lives. Many people rarely or never attend Mass, even more attend irregularly. Fewer and fewer are the number of people who understand their obligation to repay to God what is God’s and attend Mass every Sunday.

But, Jesus, the Son of God, came to remind us that we owe a special reverence and adoration to God, and always will. We owe Him that as the one who brought us into being, who sustains us through every second of life, who is Lord of a universe of which we are only a tiny part and who loves us with such an overwhelming love that He sent His Son to save us. Jesus reminded us of that when he quoted Deuteronomy, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” It is that same Son, who taught us that even when calling God “Our Father” praise should be uppermost on our minds as we acknowledge that “hallowed by Thy Name.” And no one took to these lessons to heart better than His mother Mary. She left us an ideal formula for adoring God and humbling ourselves when she said in her Magnificat, “For the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is His Name.”

We cannot give in to the tragedy of our times that sees God as ordinary. There can be no other gods in our lives other than the One, True and Almighty God. He that is mighty has done great things for us too. Let us never lose sight of that. Let us never stop saying it. Let us never stop living it. Let us never stop praying it. Let us be, as a Christian community, a worshipping people – a people reaching up and reaching out to one another.

Let us “repay to God what is God’s.”

May God give you peace.

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