FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 29th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 18, 2020:
It seems like every four years, our system of election for the highest office in the land gets more-and-more polarized, more-and-more tense and anxious, more-and-more negative. If you’re like me, it is hard to even watch the news, read a newspaper, or tune in to social media. The vitriol seems to only increase and just when it seems like it can’t get worse, it shows us that in fact it can. So, what are we to do? How are we to vote? How does a person of faith navigate these stormy seas with intelligence, with grace, and civility?
Well, Jesus actually enters into the fray today, but perhaps in a way we would not have expected. You see, too many people keep looking to the church, the clergy, the bishops with the hope that someone will tell them who you can vote for, who you cannot vote for, who the “Catholic” candidate is. These are not the right questions to ask. Jesus today reminds us instead to ask about the things that are eternal.
In our passage today, the Pharisees are trying to drag Jesus into the politics of His time. Why wouldn’t they? After all, things were fairly terrible. This once great nation, God’s chosen people, has found itself occupied by a foreign invader. The Roman Empire had conquered them, taken away their control and their freedoms, even limited much of their religious liberty. Surely Jesus would stand up and say who the right candidate was, or how everyone should act or what they are to do politically; surely He would speak out against this behemoth who had Israel under its thumb? But instead, He says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
What do you think that Jesus means? Is this about church-state relations? Does Jesus mean to divide things between Ceasar and God 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 world have nothing to do with God. And that is surely not right. So what does Jesus mean?
First, we have to recognize that the question itself is a trap: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax or not?” If Jesus responds “yes” He is allying himself with the Roman occupiers 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. Does Jesus fall into the trap? No, instead He asks them for the Roman coin used to pay the tax. Once they produce the coin, He is saying to them, “I don’t have one – you do.” You have Ceasar’s coin. By using 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. It is a trap which He skillfully avoids.
But, as always Jesus surprises the crowd with the challenge He adds, “Repay to God what belongs to God.” Jesus is saying that our obligation to worldly things is judged by a higher obligation – our obligation to God. If you think you feel an obligation to the state, it can’t compare to the obligation you should feel to God. Jesus uses this opportunity to remind the people of the first and greatest commandment, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Forget about smart questions intended to trap Jesus, instead, worship God – not with mere externals as the Pharisees do, but from deep within your soul. When things are right in your relationship with God, the way you should act and speak in the world will be clear.
Jesus uses this chance to remind us that membership in the Church is membership in a worshipping family. The Church reaches her fullness when she falls on her knees in prayer. She stands straight and walks tall when she bows her head in adoration to the One True God. 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 flow from the highest function of the Church – the prayerful worship of our Almighty God. The Church is most powerfully herself when she gathers to celebrate the Holy Mass. The Mass is the very summit of her activity, 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 the worship of God that takes place here that we must look to discover her soul, and hence, our souls.
And this is what we have upside down in our world, especially as the election draws near. We begin in the wrong place. We worry about which party is correct, which tribe to belong to and which tribe to hate, which candidate fits our bill, how to influence and convince, how to make change. But that should be not where we start, but where we end. This is where we start – right here for the Holy Mass. This is more than a mere custom we fulfill; it is where we worship our God and dsicover ourselves; allowing God to enter our lives and change us to be more like His Son. The way we act in the world must flow from the grace, the love, the joy, mercy, and compassion that are born in us here every time we celebrate the Holy Mass. Begin with repaying to God what belongs to God and all the rest will follow.
So if you are struggling with what to do in the ballot box this year, start by placing yourself before God here. Place your lives, your cares, your worries, our nation and our world, on this altar and allow God to send His Holy Spirit upon them just like He will send it upon the bread and wine. Once we are transformed fully into members of His Kingdom through our worship; only then can we transform our world to become the Kingdom He promised us.
As St. Teresa of Jesus, whose feast we celebrated this week, said, “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you. All things pass. God does not change. Patience achieves all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”
My friends, let us “repay to God what belongs to God.”
May the Lord give you peace.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.