October 16, 2020: The Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (Matthew 22:21)
In our Gospel this weekend, we hear one of Jesus’ most famous, if familiar, responses to the Pharisees thorny trap. In the ultimate ‘mic drop,’ Jesus elides the question of the legality of paying Roman taxes. Instead, he points to a fundamental principle between the relationship between faith and politics. As we come into the thick of election season, it’s a good reminder of how we can approach the current political moment with some sense of equilibrium. Three aspects of Jesus’s response give us direction.
First, it’s important to notice the context. The Pharisees were jealous of Jesus’ popularity and devised a devious scheme to entrap him. Hoping to portray Jesus as a Roman collaborator, they persuaded the Herodians, who were a group of politicos connected to the client king Herod, to question Jesus about the legality of taxes. The Pharisees knew that if Jesus denied the legality of paying taxes in the presence of the Herodians, he would be open to a charge of political sedition. Coming with insincere words of flattery, they hope that Jesus will agree that paying taxes are legal and can thereby politically polarize the Gospel of salvation. By dragging him into this debate, they frame their question with an eye to marginalize Jesus. In this way, they hope to gain both the moral and popular high ground. In a blistering response, Jesus calls out their hypocrisy. The fact that the Pharisees were not seeking the truth not only closed them to the Gospel, but moreover impeded others from being able to clearly hear Jesus. Jesus reproaches them for their malice with a stinging rebuke.
When it comes to our current political situation, it can be alarming that the public discourse is often toxic. No matter your political leanings, the reality that civility seems to be in such short supply impedes our ability to discover the truth. The Pharisees’ moral failing was not that they disagreed with Jesus, but that they were unwilling to listen and thereby cut themselves off from even the possibility of discovering and encountering Jesus as the Christ. Jesus is not on the ballot this year. There are no state propositions that are verbatim Gospel. All the more, then we are called to avoid letting hatred and bitterness take the lead in our political discussions.
Second, Jesus reminds us that we have a duty and responsibility to be connected to the political fabric of our country: “Repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” While we might simply want to avoid all politics and recuse ourselves from political awareness, Jesus’s words challenge us to be engaged. In particular, we should never take for granted the democratic principles upon which our country was founded. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights which need to be defended, lest they be lost. Pope Saint John Paul II famously championed the Solidarity movement in Soviet Poland and the world was changed because of it. Jesus never promotes theocracy. He did not come to establish a political kingdom. But he does urge his followers to take their civil responsibility seriously. There is a particular virtue and excellence in the social teachings of the Church, which guide us in making particular prudential choices in the political arena.
Third, Jesus makes it clear that our most important duty is to God: “repay to God what is God’s.” Political parties and social networks come and go. Even the most powerful nations and kingdoms rise and fall. What endures is faith. As Catholics we are called to put faith first in our lives, above everything else. Before we identify with a political party or even a particular nation, we are called to see ourselves as children of God. Our faith is more important and life sustaining than any candidate or political affiliation.
And yet, sadly for many Catholics, this is not true. Recently, the Pew Research Center authored an article titled: “Eight Facts about Catholics and politics in the U.S.” One of the most alarming facts they discovered is that “When it comes to specific policy issues, Catholics are often more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church.” For example:
On abortion, 77% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholic adults say they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 63% of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2019 survey. This divide exists despite the Catholic Church’s formal opposition to abortion.
The Church does not endorse or condemn particular candidates. Yet, if we vote for a particular candidate whose platform is contrary to the faith because of and not in spite of these policies, we sin. If the Pew Research is factual, 77% of Catholics vote for their party because of and not in spite of their anti-life position. This is one example among others which impact Catholic teaching.
As a Catholic, Dominican priest whose vocation is to preach for the salvation of souls, this is discouraging news. It means that as a Church there has been, at some level, a failure to preach as Jesus did: with the conviction is that faith more important than politics. The social teaching of the Church is the platform which should shape our political responsibilities. No matter our political affiliation, we are Catholics first and foremost. Jesus words to “repay to God what is God’s” is a sobering reminder that we will be judged by a merciful God who repay us according to how we have shown mercy.
~ Fr. Michael