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Render Unto Caesar

A Homily by Jack Tierney, O.S.A.

(Isaiah 45:1-6 / 1 Thes. 1:1-5 / Matthew 22:15-21)

Blessed be God forever. God bless America. These two phrases are often repeated. Sometimes in the same breath. 

(Deep breath, I know with the election and campaigns all of us are on guard and put our blockers up …. I promise, I’m not going there)

I love politics. The speeches, the procedures, the bargaining – I have always been fascinated by it. I got my undergrad degree in political science and spent some time in DC. One of my favorite definitions is from Harold Lasswell. In the 1930s, he crafted a classical definition of politics: who gets what, when, and how? Who will decide – what the policy will be and how can the government do that? The whole point of politics is to build successful communities where each person feels safe, prosperous, equal, and free. Something we can all agree on. 

This process is ensured every few years by an election to make sure the will of the people is represented.  As much as I love politics, I have never believed that it was an end unto itself. 

Human nature is wounded. Human institutions are limited. 

As a result there are limited resources and goods to be distributed. And it can feel like there are COMPETING loyalties – how to be a good, upright citizen that fulfills civic duties. And how at the same time to be a Saint – someone fundamentally devoted to God. St. Paul forcefully defends the divine side with a little extra oomph (1 Thes. 1:1-5). For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction. 

Many of us face this question of where our loyalties lie: Between friends and family, bosses and children, church and state – there are demands. Many ways to use of time, talent, and treasure. 

Jesus was asked this very question in the Gospel of Matthew. Where do your loyalties lie? The Pharisees were plotting to entrap Jesus. And they found a fairly clever pincer move to do it. This question was asked at a time when religious belief and the government were closely related. In the Roman empire, being a good citizen also meant being faithful to the Roman gods. There was no concept of the “separation” between Church and state… And the leader was given divine titles – as was the case on the denarius coin “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.”

Is it LAWFUL to pay the tax? If yes… Jesus could be called an agent of Caesar, a tool of the Roman occupiers. They could accuse him of not being loyal to the Jewish people. Jesus could not be a prophet of the one true God / if he supported the religious authority of the pagans.  If he said no… not lawful to pay the tax…. Then they could accuse Jesus of insurrection and rebellion. They would bring him to the authorities and Jesus would be punished, even crucified. 

It’s a tough question – to ask Jesus, the Son of God, a prophet in the Roman Empire – where do your loyalties lie? Jesus’ answer is simple and true.

Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And render unto God what belongs to God. 

That is, be the best citizen you can be. Be the best disciple that you can be. For Jesus, it’s not a question of absolute standards or even about contradictory demands. His focus is on where we spend our time… and to whom we give affection and attention.  To give each sphere their proper due – being a citizen and a member of political community requires certain things – like paying taxes and voting.  While being a son or daughter of God realizes our deepest identity – the human destiny for eternity.

To give praise and thanks to our Creator and Redeemer, for I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me.

What properly belongs to God – what is essential IS to love God and neighbor – with all your heart, all your soul, and all your being.

Render unto Caesar and render unto God. The central Political question of who gets what, when, and how… will always be with us. It is a deeply human question about equality, fairness, and the state of the nation. 

That question, however, is answered quite differently from God’s perspective. 

Who gets what? We are all called to eternal life. 

When and how?  Right here and right now! 

In our Christian charity to the poor and vulnerable … through recognizing the presence of God in one another … and by sharing in Communion with Christ our Lord. 

We are invited to share in this heavenly banquet with undivided hearts. We pray for the grace of God to guide our nation as we enter this election season.

May God bless these United States. And blessed be God forever.   

Editors Note:  this homily was originally given by Fr. Jack on October 18, 2020 and has been reformatted to fit the visual themes of AugustinianSpirtuality.org.

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