Let’s talk about taxes. On second thought, let’s not. As the next election cycle rhetoric has gotten louder over the past few months, and as it gets even louder in the months ahead, I’m sure many more people who know what they are talking about, plus a handful of those who have absolutely no clue, will be joining in the discussion or the confusion, however you want to see it. The last thing I want to speak about is money, not here, not anywhere. Two weeks ago, our bishop mandated the launch of the annual Diocesan Appeal for the support of retired priests and nuns, for the formation of our seminarians, for tuition assistance for Catholic schools, for college campus, young adult, and parish faith formation programs, for Catholic Charities, and for the many outreach programs to those in need across the diocese. Every parish had to make the same presentation at every mass that weekend. If you recall, Msgr. Ray Barton was here telling us about his work in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and how we, the community of the baptized, contribute to the work in the vineyard of the Lord by supporting inter-church activities that celebrate our common Christian heritage. Then we shifted gears to talk about the diocesan appeal. I didn’t have to say a word myself. I instructed Lorraine, our parish business administrator, to do that for me. And yet I received an irate email about it the following day. “It was condescending,” the email said, “it took away from the purpose of mass, and it was insulting.” It was only the one email, and I’d like to thank you in advance for not writing me that email. If I had the option, since people of our parish have been very generous in the past, believe me, I would not have chosen to do the talk in church at all, but that was not negotiable. And like most uncomfortable subjects, talk about money never comes up because people think they have too much.
The scriptures we read in church seldom bring up the subject of money, and when they do, it’s never really about money anyway. Today’s gospel passage from Matthew does seem to start off that way. The Pharisees are plotting to trap Jesus, and what better way to do that than by bringing up the sore subject of their subservience to the Roman Emperor. The people of Israel were subject to Roman taxation simply because they were not Roman. And anyone who contributed to the process was despised along with the Romans, including their local government officials who enforced the taxes, and those who did the actual collecting, the evangelist Matthew himself knowing this harsh treatment firsthand.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Church and state, religion and politics, oil and water. They don’t mix. The most you will get is a colloidal suspension, or one sticky icky mess. That’s what we are made to believe anyway because the idea of separation became an integral part of the American psyche after it was first enunciated by the Anabaptists in the early 16th century, then later written into the federal constitution in 1787 and the Bill of Rights in 1791. [Celebration 457, October 2002.] But we know that the church does not exist apart from the world, just as our lives as citizens of God’s kingdom cannot exist apart from our lives as citizens of the world. We believe we participate in the Spirit’s work of renewing the face of the earth when we are engaged in the political process. We are called to live our Christian values right in the marketplace of everyday life, right where we engage in commerce and finance, where we hope to instill in our children the difference between right and wrong, where we use modern technology to eradicate poverty and disease, where we call on God in the depths of our hurt and our struggle, where we seek common ground to forge pathways to peace. It is one and the same, our lives of faith and our live of flesh. It can be both simple and complex at the same time. The confusion lies only in our heads.
When life is going well and we agree with the prevailing political philosophy, it is not difficult – it can even seem like the sensible thing – to claim the approval of God, that we will advance the cause of truth and justice in all our endeavors, that we possess the divine mandate and power to quell all moral and physical evil. But when we find ourselves fighting a battle with political thinking that is different from ours, when we are unable to address problems because the values of the gospel run contrary to the values of the world, people will tend to pick sides, never mind that Jesus has something to say about the issue at hand. Even Jesus was radical in his day, advocating love for our enemies, prayer for our persecutors, forgiveness for those who offend us seventy times seven times. But people who claim to believe in God have not always proven their convictions in the way they lived their lives. They have done little to change the arrogance and hardness of heart that have masqueraded as religion in years past. We have seen it in every land and in every generation, from the hate and fear of Pharaoh of Egypt when Moses was born to that of Herod of Judea when Jesus was born, from the arrogance of pagan Rome against the early Christian community to the arrogance of Christian Rome against Orthodox Constantinople, from the religious bigotry of the crusades in the middle ages to the religious persecution of the Jews in World War II. In our day and age, conflicts arising from religion continue to fester. Mainstream common sense faith has been taken over by radical extremism. And true charismatic leaders, prophets and visionaries are lumped together with media-savvy demagogues who claim that God has spoken to them. Even worse still, those who advocate violence in the name of religion often believe they do God’s will. And yet this same God is held in highest regard for his benevolence, his righteousness, his compassionate justice and his acceptance of all who sincerely seek the truth. How can people who honor such a God be so unlike him?
Yes, we need to concern ourselves with earthly affairs, primarily for the common good. But our greater concern should be the kingdom of God, that our lives and our values above all reflect our citizenship in that kingdom. Paul reminds the Christian community at Thessalonika that the gospel does not come to us in word alone, but in power and the Holy Spirit and with the conviction of those who struggle to be faithful. Our faith and love must enlighten our work, enduring in hope because God has chosen us to be his effective witnesses in the world.
The prophet Isaiah introduced a strange notion to Israel by pointing out that the pagan Cyrus was anointed by God. They believed that their God had the prerogative to choose anyone to accomplish his divine plan. And if we are to fulfill God’s will, we cannot render all to Caesar. We must first remember to give God what belongs to God.