Render unto Caesar...

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V.  October 18, 2020

Back in the 1990s, the Canadian bishops issued a pastoral letter on the economy.  After consulting with various experts, and seeing the suffering of their people, they crafted a statement reminding political and economic leaders of their responsibility towards the poor, the unemployed, and all who bore the brunt of social and economic inequality in this country.  Their statement was intelligent, well-researched, rooted in Gospel values – and yes, critical of existing policies.

In response, a prominent Canadian businessman – Conrad Black, I believe! – responded by telling the bishops, more or less politely, to "mind their own business," quoting today's Gospel: "Render unto Caesar's what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's".  In other words, bishops (and for that matter, Christians and other people of faith) should keep their religion in the sacristy and leave compex social and economic policy to the experts: i.e., them!

So what is happening in the Gospel we have just heard proclaimed?  Did Jesus – does the Catholic tradition – see the secular and the sacred as two completely separate, distinct, and unrelated worlds?  Or is there something else going on, something deeper, something we need to pay attention to today if we are to understand both the difference AND the connections between the realm of faith and that of politics.

As always in the Gospels, context is important.  If politics makes “strange bedfellows", we have a great example of that in today's Gospel: the Pharisees and the Herodians have come together to try and trap Jesus.  These two were not natural allies.  Herod was a puppet King: nominally Jewish, but owing his position completely to Rome. He was despised by the common people for his brutality, and for his collaboration with the Roman Imperial forces.  The Pharisees, for their part, were the religious traditionalists.  They knew how much the Israelites resented the Roman occupation, and what they thought about tax collectors: public sinners, little better than prostitutes or criminals.

Jesus is, as the saying goes, trapped between a rock and a hard place.  If he answers "yes" to the question of whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he will incur the anger of those who see him as a political Messiah, sent to deliver the common people from Roman oppression.  If he answers "no", he leaves himself open to a charge of political rebellion – and we know what the Romans did to anyone who questioned their authority.  Both ways, you lose. 

Instead, Jesus raises the question to a higher level.  He refuses to buy into the “either-or”, “divide and conquer” snare his opponents are setting for him.   To those who seek to trap him with "either-or" questions, Jesus answers "both-and". 

Let's look at Jesus' answer a little more closely.  Consider this a brief course in the principles of Catholic social teaching!  Because we are social beings, because we need to live together in harmony, some form of social or political organization is necessary.  These structures are meant to serve the integral good of human persons: in their individual dignity, and in promoting the common good which serves the flourishing of all, especially the most vulnerable. 

Jesus asks for some money, knowing full well that on that coin, he will find the image and likeness of Caesar, who represents the political power. Let Caesar have this.  Then, Jesus says, consider human beings. Men and women, created in the image and likeness of God: beautiful and precious, to be protected and honoured in their fundamental dignity.  Whatever country, race, nationality, linguistic group, social class, or even religion we belong to, first and foremost, we belong to God.

"I am the Lord Your God.  You shall not have other gods beside me."  This wasn't the first commandment for nothing.  Throughout the Scriptures, we are cautioned against the sin of idolatry, our constant temptation to put worldly realities in the place of God.  As important as our political, social, cultural and religious institutions may be, they cannot replace God.  Moreover, even within these realms, God must be given his due: his image and likeness, reflected in the inherent dignity of each human person, must be respected and treasured.

In his latest encyclical on “fraternity and social friendship”, “Fratelli Tutti”, published just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis speaks to these issues.  After a fairly searing indictment of some of the inequalities and injustices in our world, revealed in even clearer light by the current pandemic, the Pope places before us the figure of the Good Samaritan, suggesting that more than simply being someone who “does a good deed”, he is someone who sees differently.  Unlike the priest and Levite, busy and fearful, unable to see the wounded man as anything more than a nuisance or an inconvenience, it is the Samaritan, the hated foreigner, who alone looks upon him and sees his full humanity, and so extends himself to truly make of this man his neighbour, his brother, his friend.  Instead of shifting the blame, he takes responsibility.  And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

In the fifth chapter of the encyclical, “A Better Kind of Politics”, Pope Francis speaks of what politics can look like when we integrate our civic and our religious responsibilities, rather than separating them:


For many people today, politics is a distasteful word, often due to the mistakes, corruption and inefficiency of some politicians. There are also attempts to discredit politics, to replace it with a particular brand of economics, or to twist it into one ideology or another.  Yet can our world function without politics?  Can there be an effective process of growth towards universal fraternity and social peace without a sound political life? (176)

At a time when various forms of fundamentalist intolerance are damaging relationships between individuals, groups, and peoples, let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over our differing ideas, opinions, and practices … As forms of fanaticism, closedmindedness and fragmentation proliferate in present-day society, a good politician will take the first step and insist that different voices be heard. (191)

Good politics combines love with hope, and with confidence in the reserves of goodness present in human hearts.  Viewed in this way, politics is something far more noble than posturing, marketing and media spin.  These sow nothing but division, conflct, and a bleak cynicism incapable of mobilizing people to pursue a common goal. (196)

Instead of asking “how many people endorsed me, or voted for me, or had a positive image of me?”, the real and potentially painful questions those engaged in politics need to ask themselves are: “How much love did I put into my civic duties?  What did I do for the progress of our people? What real bonds did I create?  What positive forces did I unleash? How much social peace did I sow? What good did I achieve in the office that was entrusted to me?” (197)

As we follow the drama of the unfolding US presidential election campaign, as we watch the Senate hearings for the confirmation of Donald Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, as we judge our own civic and political leaders for their handling of the pandemic and the economy in this country, we may want to take some of these considerations to heart. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, Democrats and Republicans alike are spending tens of millions of dollars directly targeting the “religious vote”, seeking to convince Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical voters that their party, their candidate, is the best reflection of “Christian values”, and guarantee that the causes they care about will be lifted up.  Yet it seems clear that there is no such thing as a political party which, in every aspect, is fully committed to the Gospel vision proposed by Jesus and taught in the Christian churches.

There is no politician, no leader, who fully embodies the integrity and vision of our one true leader, Jesus the Christ.  And too often, we are so hooked by our partisan political preferences, so fuelled by the deep polarizations that have taken root in our society, that fill our social media feeds, that we see only what is wrong in our opponent, and what is right in the candidate or party we support.  When we measure the Gospel against the party platform, instead of the other way around, we are rendering unto Caesar what belongs to God.  And it happens everywhere on the political spectrum:  right, left, and in the middle!  

What is Jesus saying to us in this Gospel? Most basically, that God alone is God. My language and culture are an important heritage to preserve, but they are not God.  My political party may seem to offer the most practical solutions to the problems our society is facing, but it isn't God.  My religious affiliation is a precious expression of my deep faith in God - but it isn't God either.  God is greater than all of these.

But also, that God can and must be found in all of these.  Jesus constantly breaks down the false dualities that divide politics and religion, matter and spirit, secular and sacred, nature and grace into two separate, disconnected worlds.  In the Incarnation, in Jesus, God fully embraces our human condition.  God's desire is that every aspect of our lives - family, friendship, sexuality, business, politics, religion -  be open to the transforming power of God's love, and to the ethical call to concretely live out the challenge of that love. 

In 1535, Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII, was beheaded for refusing to swear to an oath  recognizing his King as head of the Church.  As recorded in the brilliant film about his life, A Man for All Seasons, his last words were: "I die the king's good servant - but God's first."  And in 1935, he was canonized as St. Thomas More, patron of lawyers and politicians. 

Thomas was a good lawyer, he understood both the necessity and the limits of the law, of political and social institutions.  Thomas was also aware of the privileges and traditions of the Church, and her sins and weaknesses.  He worked within the Church and civil society, and served them faithfully.  But he was first and foremost, a man of conscience.  He understood the words of Jesus in today's Gospel – render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God – and bore witness to them to the bitter end.  

Most of us will not be called to martyrdom, the most extreme form of bearing witness to the truth.  But we are called to integrity, to be people of conscience, to place God at the very center of our lives as we fulfil our human and civic responsibilities.  Let this be our prayer today.  Amen.