Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 22, 2017)

One of the current religious issues is also an ancient one: what is the proper relationship between God and Caesar? Between religion and the secular state?

Jesus cleverly avoided the trap of the Pharisees and Herodians. Giving to Caesar the things that is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s is not a direct answer to the question asked, but it is certainly a starting point for discussion. The discussion involves the mystery of who God really is.

Two examples come to mind: (1) In some Muslim countries, the law of the land is the Koran, and the civil rulers are also the religious leaders. For them, od and Caesar are one and the same. A theocracy. (2) Currently, in the United States, the religious, far right would like an evangelical-Christian president and government establishing their image of god and Caesar, as one and the same. Another theocracy.

Where are we in this? I suggest a reflection arising from two questions -- and two proposed answers for your thoughtful consideration. The questions:

  1. Are we to accept non-Christians’ right to other belief systems or do we recognize only our own?

  2. What practical lessons can we draw from Jesus’ answer to the Gospel question?

In regard to belief systems: the first and third readings are curiously linked. The prophet Isaiah was the first to go on record in declaring the God of Israel. Yahweh, as the one legitimate authority who is behind every power. In spite of the fact that Cyrus was in service to the god, Bel-Marduc, Isaiah saw Cyrus as being used by Yahweh, the God of Israel and our God, to achieve the deliverance of Israel.

Much later, the Magi, who probably adhered to Zoroastrianism, would be given places of honor in the Christian tradition. They were never maligned for their worship.

In accepting Isaiah’s understanding, we can broaden our notion of the one god and view the Judeo-Christian tradition as underlying other traditions and see that god can use folks who worship a different deity to his own purpose. That is progress in God-talk.

In regard to lessons drawn from today’s Gospel, the Herodians and the Pharisees hated each other but joined forces this day against their mutual enemy, Jesus. The Herodians were Jewish collaborators with Rome, sympathetic to King Herod [hence, “Herodians”]. Their trap: if Jesus says, “pay the taxes,” he will lose the support of his Jewish followers; if he says, “don’t pay,” he will be a treasonous rebel against Rome. It seemed like an airtight scheme, a win-win situation for Jesus’ enemies.

External politics is not a “kingdom issue” for Jesus. “The kingdom within hearts” is what concerns Jesus, that authority reigns only by personal relationship. You and I need to open the door and welcome the king of glory. We give God our hearts. We make God our first priority - above friends, above family, above country, even above a spouse.

Another lesson that we can draw from today’s Gospel is that the Caesar / God issue is not either / or – Caesar or God, but both / and. Jesus recognizes that where we live under a system of government that provides public services, economic stability, and the protection of the law, we have the obligation and need to be supportive of a government whose protections and benefits we accept, even if we are working to change / improve the system.

A final lesson is that Jesus said, “Render to God the things that are God’s;” he did not say as the second half of “render to Caesar.” Render to the church what is the Church’s. The church had not been formed when he spoke, this is not to say that the church has no role in “rendering,” but is a reminder to us all that Jesus did not proclaim this. And it needs to be said lest we allow our minds to morph church into god.

Americans have long seen the wisdom in separating the realms of church and state. The turf governed by both God and government sometimes overlap, causing ongoing problems for those who see competing values within our citizenry -- issues like euthanasia, capital punishment, stem-cell research, abortion, war, services to the disadvantaged and help for the poor.

We may and should give Caesar our money for the common good; we must not give Caesar the authority to determine our conscience. Our God renders to us the power and freedom to discern this choice and all our personal choices.