29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
1st Thessalonians 1:1-5b
I have made it a habit, in the weeks leading up to a presidential election, to make reference to the US Bishops’ document on forming consciences for faithful citizenship, which I gave to you in the homily two weeks ago. I decided to do it early this year, to give you more time to consider its wisdom, and to give you more time to read the document for yourself, and so that you would experience more of the political rhetoric leading up to the election through the lens of the gospel. It might have been an inspired choice, because I’m glad that through the lens of that wisdom, we can also reflect on today’s readings.
In our first reading, from the old testament prophet Isaiah, we have an oracle from God to the Persian king Cyrus. The Persians had defeated the Babylonians while Israel was enduring their Babylonian Exile. So it was the Persians who freed Israel to return back to their homeland. Cyrus was obviously not an Israelite, not one of God’s holy people. But God tells Cyrus that he is God’s anointed, that it was God who lifted him up to his lofty position, so that God might direct him for the sake of God’s people, Israel, and so that through Cyrus, even though Cyrus did not know God, that God would be glorified through him. Now that is not to suggest any candidate as a modern parallel to Cyrus, so please don’t infer that. But it is to affirm that God can work through people, even those who are not faithful to him, even national leaders, to accomplish his own divine purposes. But he can accomplish more through those who are open to his guidance, and less through those who reject his guidance. So regardless of who is elected, we need to pray for them to seek and obey divine wisdom, that even with their personal vices, our nation might be blessed through their leadership.
Our psalm for today brings out a different aspect of our first reading: Israel’s development of God’s absolute divinity. In the beginning, Israel believed in God as their own national and cultic God, one among many gods. That gave way to understanding God as the greatest of all gods, the supreme god. Today we see the final revelation that God is in truth unique in his divinity. God the only God, the creator, and there are no other gods. He makes that clear in our first reading, and again in the psalm. When we pray in the creed, we believe in One God, we echo this faith, and then we begin the Eucharist by our offering of the gifts of blessing to the Lord God of all creation.
Our gospel reading is, as always, the highpoint of the liturgy of the word. “‘Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, ‘Caesar’s.’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…’” The Roman emperor owned all the coins. They bore his image, his likeness. They had his inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of The Divine Augustus, Great High Priest.” Jesus didn’t allow himself to be dragged down into the “us vs. them” squabble of whether or not to pay the Roman tax. He tossed off his divinely clever escape from that trap: “then give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Then in an even greater move, he elevates their focus above the question of secular obligation, to divine obligation: “But render unto God what is God’s.”
The inscription on the coin, again, said, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of The Divine Augustus, Great High Priest.” Son of the Divine. Great High Priest. They were more concerned about the authority of the one who sat enthroned in the Roman capital, than they were about the authority of the one who was supposed to be sitting enthroned over their hearts, the true Son of the Divine, the true Great High Priest. They were more concerned about the inscription of the words of Caesar on the coin, than they were about the inscription of the law of God on their hearts. They were more concerned with the one whose image the coin was made in, than they were about the one whose image they themselves were made in.
In many languages, there is no possessive “apostrophe s” like in English. In those other languages they would say “God’s” as “of God.” The Spanish, for example, for “Give to God what is God’s” would be closer to “Give it to God, that which is of God.” (Dale a dios lo que es de dios). We are “of God,” made by him, in his own image and likeness. As it says in Psalm 100, “He made us, we belong to him.”
Our lesson is perhaps best summed up in Jesus’ words earlier in the Gospel of Matthew: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides.” In other words, we tend to be more mindful of taking care of our secular obligations first, and then we let that dictate how we take care of our spiritual obligations. We define ourselves by our pleasures, preferences, opinions, and secular ideologies, and then judge Christ and the Church in relation to all that—rather than the other way around. To seek first the kingdom of God, to render unto God what belongs to God, is to begin with Christ and the Church, and then to discipline our pleasures, preferences, opinions, and secular ideologies, based on that. And not only that, but as Jesus said, when we seek first the kingdom of God, all these other things will be given to you besides. When we render unto God what belongs to God, it gives us greater clarity in where our obligation lies in rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. When we seek first the kingdom of God, we become in truth better citizens of the kingdom of Caesar. Not always in the way that Caesar would like, when Caesar would like to act sinfully, but in the way that helps us to understand and advocate for divine truth, goodness, and authentic love, against human ignorance, error, and intrinsic evil.
One of the great classic movies of contemporary Catholic Tradition, up there with “The Bells of Saint Mary’s,” “The Scarlet and the Black,” “Becket,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess,” is the movie, “A Man for All Seasons.” It’s the story of Saint Thomas More, who was the High Chancellor of England in the 16th century, under King Henry VIII. When Henry was unable to get an annulment for his marriage to his wife, Catherine, so that he could divorce her and marry Ann Boleyn, Henry confiscated Catholic-held properties in England and established the Church of England (or “Anglican” Church), with the monarch, Henry himself, as the head of the Church. For those who were faithfully Catholic, like Thomas More, this became a profound problem.
As part of this scheme, he required all those in political posts to sign the “Oath of Supremacy,” which declared, first, Henry as head of the Church in England, and second, that his marriage to Catherine was void. Thomas More refused to sign. There is a wonderful line in the movie, in which Henry implores Thomas to support him, as Henry says, not just because Thomas is honest, but because he’s known to be honest. Henry needs a man of Thomas’ intellect, character, integrity, and reputation to lend validity to his claim, and Thomas, because of his intellect, character, and integrity, which has earned him his reputation, will not do so. So Thomas was stripped of his title, imprisoned, tried and convicted with a corrupt key witness, and executed for treason.
It might be interesting to mention that St. Thomas More was the favorite saint of the faithfully Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wore a replica of St. Thomas More’s iconic hat to the 2nd inauguration of President Obama—Scalia, then, being the mentor to the faithfully Catholic Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who has shown herself to be similar to Thomas More in intellect, character, integrity, and reputation. Thomas More never said he rejected the king’s political authority. He simply refused to call true what was not true. At his execution, Thomas More announced, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” In the beautiful homily for the funeral of Justice Scalia, his son, Fr. Paul Scalia, made reference to his father’s affection for St. Thomas More, by saying “Dad understood that the deeper he went in his Catholic faith, the better a citizen and public servant he became. God blessed him with the desire to be the country’s good servant because he was God’s first.”
We cannot restrict our religious fidelity based on our political views. Rather our religious fidelity raises up and purifies our political views. We render well what is Caesar’s unto Caesar, because we render first what is God’s unto God. We are able, then, to be our country’s good servants, when we are God’s first.