18 October 2020 Homily for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Fr. Bill Edebohls
“Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar - and to God what belongs to God.”
Perhaps one of the most misused and misinterpreted one liners in scripture. It's been seen as an answer that still stands as a powerful statement of one's duty to Church and State - and misused to justify forcing the Church out of the public square, out of political and public debate on issues seen to belong solely to kings, politicians, and ideological elites.
In reality Jesus wasn’t addressing the separation of Church and State or anything to do with rulers and theologians. He was dealing with hypocrisy and a trick question set to entrap him - and have him charged with treason if he answered one way - or betrayal of the Jewish people if he answered another way. So, very cleverly, he doesn’t answer the question at all. He simply asks whose image is on the coin - its Caesar’s - well it must belong to Caesar - the question becomes irrelevant.
That being said: let’s look at the Church / State issue anyway. Christians may be in the world though not of it, but, and it’s a big but, we do have obligations to the State – even if, at times, those obligations may no longer bind us because of injustice, immorality, and conscience.
The questions of what constitutes the obligations of the state, of the individual, and of the Church will no doubt continue to be a lively source of debate and so it should be.
That so much of what was once a primary responsibility of the Church in earlier centuries (like education, hospitals, social welfare, marriage) is now largely in secular hands may be no bad thing provided coexistence, mutual respect and choice remain. Monopolies – whether they are political or religious or commercial tend to have an offensive odour. And any one of them thinking they have all the answers, or that the other has no contribution to make, is a path to totalitarianism and oblivion.
Even the forced imposition of what we believe to be right, noble, and good is problematic: whether it be the forced imposition of Christianity via the Inquisition, or Islam via the Taliban, or the forced imposition of Democracy via America’s Coalition of the Willing and its determination to impose its version democracy on whoever they choose, by force, torture, war and bombs if necessary. Not only must we realize that even democracy is flawed, and in reality some countries just aren’t yet ready for it, but also, Christians at least, ought realize that democracy is not the final answer, though it may be the best of a poor selection of political systems. It at least pays lip service to the concept of power in the hands of more rather than fewer people, the only safe way if you can't trust all the rulers all of the time.
But in the end it will be theocracy (the rule of God) which has the last word - and our daily prayer, "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” will be fulfilled. Meanwhile, as those who belong to the kingdom which our Lord said was "not of this world", we work for the implementation of God’s kingdom, God’s priorities, and God’s vision of justice, mercy and compassion. That rarely means the status quo, for lack of change brings complacency, inertia, entrenched privileges for some and continued deprivation for others.
Governments, ideological elites, and these days even the media, may object to the Church interfering in politics and having input into debates on public social policies like industrial relations, working conditions, wars in the Middle East, the environment and climate change, abortion, medical ethics, the treatment of refugees, marriage, assisted suicide and euthanasia etc. etc. but the reality is there is no clear dividing line between secular and religious life. Life is a unity. It can’t be split into two clearly defined parts – the secular or political and the spiritual or religious.
We would be denying the very reality of God’s love, and his continuing involvement in the whole of the created order, is we thought the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had nothing to say on any of these contentious political or social issues. The very fact that they impinge upon people’s lives – thrusts them into the spiritual realm – and the Gospel of Christ must speak to them.
Yes, there is a distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God – but in the end even Caesar belongs to God and we have an overriding duty of obedience to God. As God’s people we are called to live as good citizens, contributing to the welfare of the State and of all people – the doctrine of the ‘common good’. We need to continually discern how best to live as disciples of Jesus in today’s society, especially when our political leaders and policy makers lose sight of justice, compassion, fairness, equality and the dignity of every human person. At such times we need to be prophetic – speaking out in the light of the teachings of Christ - speaking truth to power - even when we risk being charged with treason.
commitment to the common good. Given the evidence that many governments throughout the world are attempting to return to tried and failed economic and social models, urgency is appropriate.
The apparently limited space given to the environment in the encyclical deserves mention, given Pope Francis’ constant insistence on its importance. In fact, the broader understanding of integral ecology evident in Laudato Si’ to include social and institutional relationships flows easily into the emphasis in Fratelli Tutti on social friendship. The document also emphasises attention to the world outside ourselves, the friendship to it imaged in the stories of Francis of Assisi, and the need to maintain this attention and altruistic care in all human relationships - institutional and transnational as well as personal and local. The perspective adopted here could enrich reflection on the environment.
In this cantankerous time the emphasis on fraternity in public conversation and advocacy will surely be welcomed. The encyclical strongly endorses the human rights of people made vulnerable by society - of women and children, of racial minorities, of refugees, of the aged and others. It views the public conversation about rights as one of engagement and persuasion in seeking the common good, not as a closed and adversarial struggle between allies and enemies. That at least would be an improvement upon the public discourse to which we have become accustomed.
Fr. Andrew Hamilton SJ
Pope Francis signs the encyclical in Assisi