The things that are God’s
Thanksgiving is not so far away that it is too early to remind ourselves of the topics that are to be avoided around the Turkey. Politics and religion of course. These days we should probably add sex. Not that I think that is likely to come up. But you never know. Just this last week the city of Houston, Texas managed to combine all three: attorneys for the city defending a new non-discrimination ordinance subpoenaed the sermons of pastors who opposed the law, particularly those that mention the mayor, the ordinance or sexuality. Quite apart from the Constitution and the First Amendment I would be tremendously flattered if the City of Dallas thought my sermons were dangerous enough to be subpoenaed. The ordinance protects against discrimination in every imaginable category, not just discrimination based on ethnicity or gender but those based on libido as well. No one likes discrimination; the problem always is you cannot legislate against discrimination without discriminating against someone else. One of the more bizarre provisions of the ordinance is that it allows men to use women’s restrooms and vice-verse. That is discrimination against men since everyone knows that the women’s line is always longer than the men’s.
Like it or not, we are living in politically charged environment. But no more politically charged than the age in which Jesus lived.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Almost the first thing we hear about Jesus is that he was born away from home because of a census which had been ordered by the Emperor. The only reason you count people is so you can tax them. At the other end of the Gospel we learn that Jesus was accused of opposing the Roman tax. “Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ/Messiah, a king."
The taxes imposed on Judea by the Romans had led to riots. Judas of Galilee had led a revolt which was suppressed only with great difficulty. The Zealots acted as a permanent resistance to Roman taxes. The question asked of Jesus was an attempt to entrap him: if he says ‘yes’ the he is a traitor to his people; if he says ‘no’ he identifies himself as a Zealot and an enemy to the Roman authority. On the purely political level there is no third possibility. But Jesus refuses to be bound by the political, to stay at the level of politics. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, unto God the things that are God’s”. The response of Jesus is not a clever political spin which avoids offending anyone and says nothing. What Jesus does really is change the subject all together. The issue for him is always God and our relationship to him.
“Show me the money for the tax. Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Probably the image was that of Tiberius and the inscription read “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”. It is the oldest trick in the book for politicians to claim to be gods. Well, we might think, at least, no one falls for that anymore. I am not so sure. Politicians act like gods, claiming to be the most important thing in our life. Not just politicians either but a whole bevy of others, campaigners, activists, the mass media, pundits, bloggers, lobbyists whose job it is to convince us that politics is the most important thing in the world, 24/7, all the time, everywhere and for everyone.
Fr. James Schall, himself a professor of political science at Georgetown, makes the point that needs to me made: “No political order can be itself healthy unless it has within it those who are not devoted to politics. This is not in any way a denial that politics are important, but it is a denial that they are the most important things in a society. Indeed, a society that makes politics the most important thing is already a totalitarian society, as Aristotle had already implied".
It is not just that political power ought to be limited; it is in fact limited: subordinate to God’s authority. Jesus says to Pilate “you would have no power over me unless it was given from above.”
“Give to God the things which are God’s”. What belongs to God is everything because everything is the result of his creative power and in particular man belongs to God because man is created in God’s image, not Caesar’s, and because God’s rule is over all earthly kings, princes and governors. What Jesus does in the Gospel is demystify political authority, taking from it the illusion which it cherishes, that it is divine, ultimate and absolute. We pray for our political leaders and we do not pray to them. They have a divinely given stewardship, as the old Prayer Book says, that we may be “godly and quietly governed”.
Man has a supernatural destiny. Politics cannot provide us with our natural necessities still less with our supernatural necessities.
But Jesus does not pursue the question of the legitimate or exaggerated claims of worldly authorities. He is only concerned that God receive all that is owed him. Where worldly powers rise in rebellion against the God’s rule and governance Jesus and his followers will oppose them.
This may well have consequences for the followers of Jesus as it surely had consequences for Jesus himself. “We have found this man subverting our nation.”
The things that are God’s
As is so often the case I was helped in this homily by the commentary of Fr. von Balthasar.