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Give to Caesar - but even Caesar is under God

Archbishop Wenski's homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily at St. Mary Cathedral, Miami, Oct. 18, 2020, the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – and his birthday.

In today's Gospel, two groups, Pharisees and Herodians, who were used mostly to fighting with each other, join forces to see if they can trip up Jesus. The question put to Jesus was really a trap — to answer the question either way would be to put Jesus in a bind: To say “don’t pay the tax” would get him in trouble with the Roman authorities; and to say “pay the tax” would cause him to lose credibility with the Jewish masses. 

Jesus’ famous response was a deft way of getting out of a tight situation and turning the tables on his opponents, and in doing so he unmasks their hypocrisy – for the Pharisees, even if they made a big show of opposing the Roman idolaters, carried the coins with the images of the “divine” emperor in their purses.  

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This is Jesus’ famous answer. But since everything belongs to God, Jesus effectively relativizes the power of all the Caesars of all times. Jesus is not arguing for two independent spheres of power and obligation — that of Caesar and that of God. No earthly ruler can claim absolute sovereignty — for even Caesar is under God. As the prophet says in today’s first reading, “The Lord is God, there is no other.” 

Even so, the Church has always taught that civil authorities, in as much as they derive their power from God and exercise their authority within its proper limits, should be obeyed: We do have to pay our taxes. But, the sphere of Caesar — politics, if you will — is not a territory protected from religious evaluation and criticism. If Caesar is under God, then his laws are open to being critiqued by the Gospel. 

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

In our pledge of allegiance, we affirm “one nation under God.” And if that is so, the voices of faith have a legitimate and necessary place in the public square in our nation. The Church, when she makes her proposals about what can contribute to human flourishing in society — whether we are talking about the protection of unborn children, migration reform, the sanctity of the family or marriage as a union between one man and one woman — we are not interfering in Caesar’s business; and, when we urge our faithful to exercise their right to vote in a way that is coherent with their professed beliefs, we are not meddling into politics. We are being good citizens by making our own unique contribution to the common good.  After all, the Constitution promises “freedom of religion,” not “freedom from religion.”

As citizens but also as people of faith, we do think we have something to say — we do have a Word to share. Therefore the Church, while she should never be “partisan,” what we say and teach inevitably touches on “politics” — perhaps, politics with a capital “P” as opposed to descending to the level of partisanship, which could be described as politics with a small “p”.  

When political authorities set themselves up as God — or even as above God — they move out of what is properly theirs: In doing so, they lose their legitimacy and cannot bind the consciences of their citizens. Thus, throughout history, when faced with conflicting demands, one from one's religious faith and one from one's civic responsibilities, the Church has responded: We must obey God before we obey men. We propose the Gospel — with its vision of man — as the solution to the world’s problems; but too often those in power, when threatened by this vision of the human person, will see the Gospel as the problem — and, the result is religious persecution, a persecution that has always accompanied the Church on her earthly pilgrimage. 

Here in this country, we have been blessed with a constitutional regime that, at least until now, has respected the freedom of religion and conscience. For example, our laws have historically recognized the right of citizens to conscientious objection and thus the freedom from the state coercing them to act against their conscience or religious beliefs. 

But, the ascendant secularism of our society today is increasingly eroding this understanding. For example, the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community of nuns that take care of elderly people, must fight in the courts to protect their rights to conscience so as not to be coerced into paying for other people’s abortions. With a possible change in administration, they will most likely be back in the courts again.

But we also see this in the increasing intolerance within society itself to those who hold for the traditional understanding of traditional marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The coercive power of the state or the academy is being invoked to force people to "get with the program" so to speak. People are threatened with the loss of their livelihood for holding “politically incorrect” views.

Here in the state of Florida, Step-Up scholarships, funded by corporate tax credits so that children from low income families can benefit from private education, have been challenged in court by the public-school teacher unions and the state association of school boards. Last year, some in the Florida Legislature alleged without proof that these scholarships discriminated against LGBT parents and sought to discourage corporations from participating in this program that simply recognizes the right of parents to choose what’s best for the education of their children. Thousands of children here in the archdiocese – mostly African Americans and Hispanics – benefit from these scholarships which ultimately save the taxpayer money in our state.

The right to religious freedom is fundamental to all other rights. And religious freedom is more than the freedom to worship – it must also include our freedom to serve according to our beliefs, in ways that are consistent with our beliefs. If the state can force citizens to act against their consciences or their deeply held religious beliefs or disqualify them from holding public office because of those beliefs, then all we will have left is totalitarianism.

The 20th century was marked by the struggles against the hard totalitarianism represented by communism and fascism; the 21st century is already being marked by a struggle against the soft totalitarianism of "political correctness" being imposed by elites in politics and in academia.

Whose image was on the coin? Caesar’s. So, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But whose image is engraved on the human person? God’s. Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. The life and dignity of the human person are not gifts or entitlements conferred by the state: They are God-given. We give God what is God’s when we promote and protect the right to life, the right to education, the right to health care, the right to fair and equal treatment of every person regardless of creed, race, abilities or disabilities or “different abilities.” We give God what is God’s when we honor the dignity of each human being in all their diversity and difference.

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