29th Sun [A] 2008

Fr. Charles Irvin

Isaiah 45:1,4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21

What is God’s and what isn’t God’s? What part of our world belongs to God and what does not? That fundamental question is in front of us today just as it has been in front of our ancestors down throughout human history.

Our elder brothers and sisters in the faith, the Jewish people, believed that everything was God’s. The world wasn’t divided into the sacred and the secular; the whole of it was God’s. There was no compartmentalizing of the world, there was no compartmentalizing how humans were to live out there lives; there was no compartmentalizing of body and soul. Everything was given us by God and is to return to God.

Writing our Declaration of Independence our Founding Fathers declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln all held to the belief that God is accomplishing His purposes through the cooperation of humans who actualize His justice in the way we live with, care for, and respect others, all the while recognizing in our laws and human behavior that we are made in God’s image and likeness. They believed that our country and its citizens were a part of God’s world and that our nation was in His plan.

In our first reading today we heard about Cyrus, a mighty Persian king, a non-Jew and a non-believer, who nevertheless was accomplishing God’s purposes even though he did it unknowingly. Isaiah was proclaiming that there is nothing that is secular in God’s world; everything in the world and everyone in the world is God’s, believers and non-believers alike, and through them He is accomplishing His purposes.

In today’s Gospel account we learn of two Jewish factions that joined together to put their famous question to Jesus. The first thing we should note is that their question was a tricky lawyer’s question. It was not a question that sought enlightenment; it was not put to Jesus in order to learn anything from Him. No. It was put to Jesus to trap Him. Was He to be seen either as an insurrectionist revolutionary, an enemy of the government, or was He to be seen as a collaborator with the hated Roman authorities who so brutalized the Jewish people?

The Pharisees, the religious purists of the day, hated the Roman tax. The Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman puppet King Herod, supported the tax. They hated each other. But here we find them joined in a combined effort to trap Jesus, discredit Him, and thus do away with Him.

With a canny response Jesus discredits them both. Both were Jews; both parties, as Jews, rejected graven images as violations of the First Commandment. No Jew of any stripe would countenance the idea that idols were to be worshipped. Statues and images were totally forbidden for use among Jews; they were seen as false, man-made gods.

Here we find Jesus in His response to their tricky question asking both factions for a coin, which they gave him. Note that they were in the Temple area when this incident took place. Note, too, that the Roman coin had carved upon it the image of the infamous Tiberius Caesar, the one who had so completely desecrated their Temple. The coin also bore the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar – Son of the Divine Augustus”. On the other side it designated him as “Pontifex Maximus”, supreme priest.

The fact that both parties had carried that coin with them into the Temple area tells us that they thereby discredited themselves. No good Jew would be caught with such an idolatrous coin in the Temple area.

Furthermore, we need to realize that Jesus’ response was directed at the precise issue of whether or not the Roman taxes should be paid. Jesus said nothing about the autonomy of Caesar in his secular role. Nor was Jesus making any statement at all about separating religion from society.

So these questions remain: What is Caesar’s, and what is God’s? Is there anything at all that is not God’s – is there anything at all in human activity that does not stand under God’s judgment? And for us as modern day Americans, do we exempt anything from God’s purview?

Some do. There are some of us who advocate a two-kingdom theology, dividing life into two autonomous and independent realms, one civil and secular, the other religious, what we do on Sunday and what we do the rest of the week.

Our Declaration of Independence in which we declare that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inherent, fundamental, and unalienable rights embarrasses the cultured despisers of religion. Unlike the French declaration of the Rights of Man which came twelve years after our American declaration and which ignored God, we grounded our rights on the will of God, not the will of Man. Our rights are dependent upon God, not on a king, a congress or a court.

For us today, in responding to this gospel, we are challenged to deal with the question:

What is God’s? The focus is not what is Caesar’s because what is Caesar’s is very limited. The larger question is: What is God’s?

On November 4th we will be asked to vote on Proposal 2, which allows for the unregulated destruction, marketing, and experimentation on human embryos. It is a constitutional amendment and thus it would prohibit the state legislature from putting any restrictions on embryo destruction and make embryonic destruction the only industry to be immune from state laws and regulations.

An embryo in its mother’s womb has its own blood type, not its mother’s. It has its own body cells, its own DNA coding, not its mother’s. Very early in its development it will have its own heartbeat, and its own electric brain activity. Quite clearly it is not merely a part of its mother’s protoplasm. It is not even a part of its mother’s body. It is, however, connected to its mother’s body in order to receive nutrients. It is dependent on its mother; having its own body cells and blood type, it is distinct from its mother but not yet separated from the shelter of its mother’s body. Clearly it is not a simply a part of its mother’s bodily cells. In simplest terms, an embryo is a human life that, if nurtured and protected, will grow to be eighty or ninety years old. That is a matter of medical fact; it is not a statement of faith or of Church dogma.

Let me point out that Jesus did not answer the question about what is Caesar’s and what is God’s – He left that answer for His questioners to decide. Why? Because He wants each one of us to decide.

So then, not only on November 4th but also in all of the days of our lives, the question we must answer is: What is God’s and what is ours?

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”