Homily for October 16, XXIX Sunday in Ordinary Time year A
“Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God.” This is one of the better-known phrases in the Gospels, and as is the case with many Scripture passages, there are many different ways to read it. If you look it up on the internet, you will find a huge range of approaches to it, some even in complete contradiction to each other.
By way of context, we should note that, at the time of Christ, there was rarely a clear distinction between religion and government. Most often, not only was there an official state religion, but quite frequently the political rulers played a special role in religious functions. Kings and emperors often claimed special affinity with the divine, whether as being chosen directly by the divinity, or being descended from gods, or even as being gods themselves. This was very much the case in the Roman empire, which had conquered Palestine. The Romans were tolerant of local beliefs to some extent, but also sought to merge the faiths of the nations they conquered with the Roman religion, and expected the conquered nations to offer monetary and religious tribute to the emperor.
So, on one hand, collaboration with the Romans was, for the Jews, practically akin to supporting idolatry. On the other, many Jews also denied the validity of any authority over them that was not a Jewish theocracy. Hence they did not want to pay the taxes imposed by the Romans. However, when Jesus answered the question about whether or not it was allowed under Jewish law to pay the Roman taxes, he said, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” This response took the Pharisees by surprise, because of the distinction that it makes between human and divine authority.
Today in most of the Western world we live in secular states where religious and political authority are clearly separate. In most cases, it’s fairly clear what we owe to Caesar and what we owe to God. No one thinks that the Church has authority to dictate traffic laws or tax rates, just as no one can reasonably suppose that the government can dictate Church dogma. However, we also run the risk of creating a complete division between civic live on one hand, and religion as a private and personal conviction on the other, where neither has any effect on the other. It is often on this premise that Catholic politicians support legislation allowing abortion, physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, and similar issues. They often recognize that the Church opposes these laws, but feel that voting against them would be an imposition of our faith on others, violating the separation of Church and state.
This is a misunderstanding. To begin with, there are truths that are proposed by the Church and which we may come to know by means of faith, but which can be known and supported apart from the faith as well. It’s a different kind of truth than the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which is a truth known only by faith. We are dealing here with fundamental truths of human nature and human rights, not religious belief or practice. They are rational principles that we are duty-bound to defend, and doing so does not mix politics with religion. In short, there are areas where both religious and secular authorities overlap, because they touch on vital truths that are still more fundamental and should be equally acknowledged by both.
But also, God’s authority extends over all creation, including civil authority. In the first reading, God reveals that even the pagan ruler Cyrus is under His authority; God is “the Lord, there is no other.” The psalm reminds us that the Lord is king over all the earth and over all nations. We are bound to obey His commands in both our private and our public lives. While we should not try to impose specific Catholic practices on people of other faiths, there are fundamental principles we must uphold. We should also defend our own right to act guided by faith both in private and in public, at home and at work.
The relationship between faith and politics in our country is almost as controversial today as it was in the time of Christ, albeit for different reasons. It seems there are no perfect solutions. We each have to follow our consciences, but we need to ensure that our consciences are formed by the truth and obedient to God’s commands. Let us pray that God will give us wisdom as we strive to be responsible citizens of both our country and God’s kindgom.