God and God Alone: A Homily for the 29th Sunday of the Year

101814The Gospel today contains lots of interesting juxtapositions: hatred for Jesus but grudging respect for him,  real questions versus rhetorical ones, politics and faith, duties to Caesar and duties to God. The word  “juxtaposition” is from the Latin juxta (meaning “near”) and positio (meaning “place or position”). Hence juxtaposition is the placing of two things near to each other in order to see how they are similar and yet different.  In English, usually a juxtaposition emphasizes differences more than similarities.

Let’s look at these one by one, spending the most time on the juxtaposition of our duties toward God and toward “Caesar.” The essential lesson in all these juxtapositions is that God will not be reduced to fit into our little categories. He is God, not man.

I. The Plotting of the Peculiar Partners  The Gospel begins by describing an extremely unlikely set of “bedfellows.” The text says, The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.  They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians. A very unlikely set of allies here. The Pharisees hated the Herodians. It was a combination of political and racial hatred, just about as poisonous as you could get in the ancient world. Yet they both agreed that this Jesus fellow had to go.

Here is an important teaching: if you’re going to be a true Christian the world will hate you. Too many Christians think some segment of the world will agree to live in peace with us and so we strive to forge allegiances with it. In the modern American scene, some think that the Republicans or the Democrats are natural allies for us. As we will discuss later, we really don’t fit well into either party or into any worldly “club.”

Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” if it is proclaimed in its unabridged form. Issue by issue we may appeal to one political party or another. But taken as a whole we’re a nuisance: pro-life, traditional family values, immigrants’ rights, affordable housing, anti-capital punishment. But in the end, we both please and annoy at the same time. Which is another way of saying we don’t fit into the world’s categories and everyone has some reason to hate us.

Welcome to Jesus’ world where even the Herodians and Pharisees, who seem to agree on nothing, do agree to hate Jesus.

II. The Praise that is (really) a Perilous Provocation – In their opening remarks to Jesus, His enemies give him grudging respect.  But they do so not to actually praise Him but rather to provoke Him. They say, Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? 

But this praise is largely a pretext and is used to provoke. In effect, they think they can they can force a definition on Jesus: “You’re the Man … You’re the prophet … You’re the answer man … You’re the only one around here who tells the truth no matter what.” Now none of these things are false and they bespeak a grudging respect for Jesus.

But they are only using this to draw Jesus into a worldly debate well below his “pay grade.” They want Jesus to take sides in a stupid human debate over politics and worldly power. They want him to get arrested and killed over something not worth dying for.

Prophets die for the truth revealed by God not for who the “big cheese” should be in human affairs or who human beings think are the best. They want Jesus to opine as if He were some sort of talking head on TV rather than the prophet and Lord that He is. A question of this sort is not worthy of Jesus’ attention. Ask this of the local senator or mayor but leave God out of human political distinctions and camps; do not expect Him to take sides. He is beyond our distinctions and will not be confined by party lines, national boundaries, or political philosophies.

We may well debate that certain systems better reflect the Kingdom than others, but in the end, God cannot be reduced to being a Republican, a Democrat, or for that matter an American. He is God and He transcends our endless debates and camps. He is not a talking head; He is God.

Generally speaking, rhetorical questions are statements or arguments posed in the form of a question. If I say to you, “Are you crazy?” I am not really looking for an answer.  Though I have spoken in the form of a question, I am really making a statement: “You ARE crazy.”  This is what takes place in today’s gospel. The questioners already have their own opinions and they are not about to change based on any answer Jesus would give. They don’t really want an answer per se. They just want something to use against Him.

If He says, “Yes, pay the taxes,” that is politically incorrect and will make Him unpopular with the crowds. If He says “No, don’t pay the taxes,” He will be arrested and likely executed.

In the end, Jesus calls them what they are: hypocrites, a Greek word meaning “actor.” And that is what they are. This whole thing is an act. No real answer is sought, just a showdown. This is not about discovering the truth; it is about setting a trap.

But Jesus will have none of it. He will not be reduced to human distinctions and categories. The truth He proclaims transcends the passing political order and struggles for human power. He will not be drawn into declaring one side or the other better. Rather, He will apply the ruler of truth evenly to all.

He is reality in the face of rhetoric, perfection in the face of politics, Divinity in the face of division.

III. The Protesting of their Pretext and Pretense – Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?   Not every one who engages us is truly looking for an answer or for the truth. We cannot always know things, but Jesus surely could. Often, when one is engaged in a discussion about the truth of the Gospel, one discovers that authentic dialogue is not actually taking place and thus it is permissible for us to merely proclaim the truth firmly, clearly, and with due charity, and end the conversation. Jesus thus called them on their pretense and authoritatively announced the principle with a goal to ending the conversation and sending them away to think.

IV. The Pointed Proclamation of the Principle of Jesus says, simply, and in a way that transcends worldly “all-or-nothing” scenarios, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

This of course generates the wish for elaboration. But in our demands for more detail, we too often seek to conceal the fact that we really know the answer. And we also betray the need of the flesh to specify everything so as to control and limit its impact.

But if a list is demanded we might include some of the following things we ought to “pay” to Caesar (i.e., in our scenario to pay to our country or locale):

  1. Obey all just laws.
  2. Pay legally assessed taxes.
  3. Pray for our country and its leaders.
  4. Participate in the common defense based on our abilities and state in life.
  5. Take an active and informed part in the political process.
  6. Engage in movements of necessary and ongoing reform.
  7. Contribute to the common good through work (domestic or market-based) and through the sharing of our abilities and talents.
  8. Maintain strong family ties, and raise disciplined children well prepared to contribute to the common good and the good order of society.
  9. Encourage patriotic love of our country.
  10. Strive for unity and love rooted in Truth.

And we might include some of the following in what we owe to God:

  1. Adoration, love, and gratitude
  2. Obedience to His Word and Law
  3. Worship
  4. Repentance
  5. Support of His Church by attendance at sacred worship, financial support, and sharing of our gifts and talents
  6. Proclamation of his Word both verbally and by witness
  7. Devoted reception of the Sacraments
  8. Raising our children in His truth and in reverence of Him
  9. Evangelization (making disciples)
  10. Preparing for death and judgment through a holy and reverent sojourn here on earth

A glance at these lists reveals, however, that there is overlap, and one would expect this with God. For He defies many of our human categories and distinctions. In effect, we see a setting forth of the great commandment of Love: that we should love the Lord our God with all our soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself (e.g., Matt 22:37). For while God is not Caesar and Caesar is not God, love unites both categories.

Hence we see that to love our country is to love our neighbor. To work for, support, and be involved in the common good is to love our neighbor. And to love our neighbor, whom we see, is to begin to love God, whom we do not see. Further, to seek to reform our land, secure justice, and ensure unity rooted in truth, is to help usher in the Kingdom of God. Yet again, to be rooted in God’s law, walk in His truth, and raise our children as strong and disciplined disciples of the Lord is to bless this country. To obey God and to walk in sobriety, love, and self-discipline is to render not only to God but also to be good citizens.

However, it must be clear that God is and must be our supreme love. And So Jesus is not setting forth a mere equivalence here. It remains a sad fact that this world is often at odds with God. And thus we who would be his disciples must often accept the fact that we will be seen by this world as though we are aliens from another planet. As we have already set forth, neither Jesus nor we should expect to fit precisely into any worldly category or club. We will be an equal-opportunity irritant to any large group.  If you are going to be a faithful Catholic then expect to be an outsider, an outlier, and an outcast.

Rendering to God comes first. But too many people today are more passionate about their politics than their faith. They tuck their faith under their politics and world view. They are more inclined to agree with their party than with the Church or even the Scriptures. And if you try to tell them that, they’ll say you’re violating Church/State barriers (a phrase not in the Constitution, by the way), or that since something is not infallibly defined (as they determine it) they are free to entirely ignore the teaching of the bishops, the Pope, and/or the Catechism on any number of matters.

Hence the question goes up: is God really first? Is His Word really the foundation of our thoughts and views? Or are we just playing games? Loving this world and working for the common good are not at odds with our love for God. But submitting to worldly categories and human divisions and permitting them to drive our views IS most often opposed to God, who will not simply be conformed to human political movements.

God has set forth the Catholic Church to speak for Him but He has not anointed any political movement or worldly organization to speak as such. No Catholic ought to surrender to artificial and passing distinctions, or to organizations, or should permit worldly allegiances to trump what the Scriptures and the Church clearly proclaim. Sadly, today many do, and in such ways seem far more willing to render to some version of “Caesar” than to first render obedience and allegiance to God and to the Church, which speaks for Him. The Church is an object of faith; a political party is not. Render to God what is God’s.

This song says, God and God alone is fit to take the universe’s throne:

15 Replies to “God and God Alone: A Homily for the 29th Sunday of the Year”

  1. A detail often overlooked: what were the Pharisees doing with a Roman coin with the image of the “divine” Caesar in the first place?

    1. Maybe the coin belonged to one of the Herodians.

      I love the idea that we can’t fit into any of the political parties. That’s why I vote for people, not parties. Whoever comes closest to the Catholic faith wins my vote. I make sure they don’t support the murder of the unborn first, and then go from there to ALL the issues. I get mail from both parties and sometimes agree with one, other times the other. Faith and God first, always.

    2. Roman currency was traded at the temple. Remember the money changers who’s tables Jesus over turned? They were providing the necessary service of changing foreign coinage into temple money.

  2. With the closing of the Synod, we as Catholics find ourselves in a state of seeming confusion. If we don’t understand what is happening with and in the Church at this time, we will remain confused or make a bad choice. I am going to try to apply this Gospel teaching to our current situation. We only worship God in His Christ Jesus and in His precepts; His Commandments. If anyone preaches or teaches a different Gospel let him be anathema.

  3. Yet another excellent sermon, Msgr. However, it bugs me a little that you seem to imply that opposition to capital punishment is catholic doctrine. As far as I know, it is not. Neither is immigration policy and affordable housing. (Also, come to think of it, if there were no capital punishment, there would not have been the crucifixion.)

      1. I know it’s just there incidentally and that it doesn’t change the message you were conveying at all – which is a true one, – but you did say:

        “Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” if it is proclaimed in its unabridged form. Issue by issue we may appeal to one political party or another. But taken as a whole we’re a nuisance: pro-life, traditional family values, immigrants’ rights, affordable housing, anti-capital punishment. But in the end, we both please and annoy at the same time. Which is another way of saying we don’t fit into the world’s categories and everyone has some reason to hate us.”

        1. Fair enough, it there. Typed quickly and no doubt barely remembered even by who typed it. The point isn’t that ll the issues are on equal footing, but that the stance of the Church to these issues isn’t politically predictable. Not everything Jesus said was on equal footing, I suppose, but he was no less hated for that fact.

          1. I understood the point of your sermon very well – it was so well written after all. Sorry for the nit-picking, it is a bad-habit in need of mortification. Please continue with your excellent work.

    1. Brwno:
      Catholic moral teaching is that any act of violence is objectively evil. Capitol punishment is a direct killing and so is an act of violence. Other alternatives to ensure social justice must be pursued.

      1. Dear Heidi, I would tend to disagree with you there – and it was you who mentioned the overturning of the tables, – but then again, I am no theologian. In any case, I realize now that this is not the proper place to debate this issues, since Msgr. Pope’s article is not dealing primarily with such issues.

      2. Brwno,

        Your assertion “Catholic moral teaching is that any act of violence is objectively evil.”, is 100% objectively false.

        First of all, setting aside the obvious imprecision that “any” brings to your assertion, neither the UCCB’s 1994 pastoral on the culture of violence, nor the quote it uses from the homily of St. John Paul II, nor any other homily, is binding magisterial teaching. Thus to say “Catholic moral teaching is”, is an objectively false statement. [links to both below]

        In St. John Paul II’s homily, from where the UCCB takes the quote, he is speaking directly his teaching that “peace cannot be established by violence”. A teaching in which he is correcting those who claim peace can be achieved through violence. It is not a statement by him declaring any and all violence as always objectively evil.

        The definition and meaning of violence, a descriptive word, is always a subjective construct dependent upon the act being described. Look at the sickness of Political Correctness today. Many claim words “do violence”.

        I ask you this.

        After receiving the gift of His Holy Body, do you chew the Holy Body of Our Lord Jesus or do you let His body and your body become one without chewing?

        Is chewing Him doing violence to His body when chewing is unnecessary?

        What of hitting a child; does violence then only exist when a certain level of corporal damage is inflicted?

        What of obligations to justice? The number of examples one can think of where an act of corporal force is an act of virtue and justice are as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Certainly at some point the corporal force in all of these conceptions could become so extreme as to become acts of evil, but, at what point?

        Violence is always merely a descriptor of the degree of presence, or non-presence, of Charity in an act.

        Violence can be an objectively evil act, but it is not always so with any act.


        St. John Paull II’s homily: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19790929_irlanda-dublino-drogheda_en.html

        UCCB pastoral letter: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/violence/confronting-a-culture-of-violence-a-catholic-framework-for-action.cfm

  4. Great sermon, Msgr. Many Catholics vote “party line” regardless of the anti-life planks of their party. It is very difficult trying to reason with such people and show them that they need to value LIFE from God above all other issues.

    I think Brwno was referring to the following:

    “But taken as a whole we’re a nuisance: pro-life, traditional family values, immigrants’ rights, affordable housing, anti-capital punishment.”

  5. Seems there is a movement to write our own Bible s King James did. Why are we constantly lowering moral standards in an attempt to make everyone comfortable?

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