29th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year A

[Given before the 2008 presidential election]

I think it is by God’s providence that this Gospel about money, politics, and religious faith, is being read today in Catholic Churches throughout our country, and especially here in Ohio. We are now experiencing what people are calling a financial crisis, and we are on the verge of a pivotal election. First I would like to speak to you about the Gospel, then our financial fears, and then about this election.

In today’s Gospel, we see the Pharisees engaging in the politics of personal destruction against Jesus. They don’t like Jesus so they have launched a negative campaign to trap him in a damaging sound bite. The Pharisees’ dirty tricks squad comes to Jesus to set him up.  They begin with some flattery and then they ask Jesus about the religious lawfulness of paying the census tax. Notice that they don’t ask about the rightness or wrongness of paying taxes to the occupying Romans in general. They focus on one particular tax, the census tax, because census-taking was condemned in the Law of Moses.

God told Moses that the future leaders of His people should not make a count of the whole people. Knowing these figures, a king would know how to maximize his tax revenues. He would also know the size of the pool of men available to him to draft for his conquests. But with the king clearly knowing these things, knowing the great wealth and power at his disposal, he would be tempted to hubris. The king would be likely to fall to ambition and pride, to be forgetful of God and indifferent to God’s will. This would lead him, and all the people, towards disaster. The Law of Moses forbid the census-taking of the people, because a census-taking king is inclined to think that the people and everything belong to him, to do with as he wishes. But in truth, God’s people and everything else really belongs to God.

But isn’t this a lot like us? When we become overconfident in our position and wealth and power, when we live beyond our needs and live beyond our means, when our passions and pride are leading us, we are forgetful of God and indifferent to God’s will, and this leads us towards disaster. From time to time we should ask ourselves: is it in coins we trust, or is it in God we trust?

Now Back to Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Herodians. The disciples of the Pharisees hope that Jesus will answer this way: “The census tax is unlawful and no faithful Jew should pay it.” Because when he does that, the Herodians will step in and have Jesus arrested. You see the Herodians are the supporters of King Herod, the Roman-backed puppet king of Galilee. If the Herodians hear Jesus say that it is wrong to pay the Roman tax, they’ll have Jesus arrested for sedition, for preaching rebellion. Now you understand something of the difficult and dangerous spot in which the Pharisees and the Herodians have placed Jesus.

But Jesus answers with a phrase you already know well, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  This answer amazes Jesus’ hearers. All they can do is walk away. But what does this statement mean? I believe he is saying this to us: “Coins are of little consequence. Whose image and inscription is on this coin? Caesar’s? Then they belong to Caesar, let him have them. But as for you, whose image and inscription do you bear? The image and the likeness and the name that you bear is God’s.  So you belong to God. Give yourself to Him.”

[The fears raised by this financial crisis]

Jesus said, time and again, perhaps more than anything else, “Don’t be afraid.” So do not be afraid. It’s going to be ok. Worry is worthless, concern is enough. If you are doing the little that is in your power, be at peace with that.  Pray, and leave the rest to God. Because it’s going to be ok. Why? Because as much as Caesar loves his money, God loves you a thousand times more.  How great of a compliment is it to God when we choose not to worry, because this is an act of faith and trust in His goodness and His love for us.

Now please don’t dismiss me when I say “it’s going to be ok” because you think I’m Pollyannish, or that I’m youthful and overly optimistic about life. I say it because this is the good news our faith. The worst scenario that you can imagine happening in the future is very unlikely to occur, but let’s imagine for a moment that this financial crisis results in the very worst for you.  What if you’re stripped naked, left in complete poverty and humiliation? What if you experience pain like the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet nailed to beams of wood? What if you become so powerless that you can’t even wipe away blood and tears from your eyes? Even if this happens to you, even then, it’s going to be ok. Even if everyone else abandons you, you will not be alone. God our loving Father, who might seem distant, will never abandon you. He will be helping you. Mary our Mother, who always loves us, will never be far. She will be interceding for you. In your suffering, you will be with Christ, and you will rise again and be glorified with Him. So don’t be afraid, because no matter what, even if this happens to you, it’s going to be ok.

[What to consider in this pivotal election]

What makes America great? Is it our wealth and our military strength? I don’t think so, at least not in themselves, for a miser is wealthy, but he is hardly a great man. And a violent criminal may be very strong, but he is hardly a great man. If you judge greatness according to wealth and military strength, then Caesar was a great man and Jesus wasn’t. I believe America is great because it is founded upon human dignity.

“We hold certain truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by God, their Creator, with certain rights that cannot be taken away, and that among these are the right to pursue happiness, the right to liberty, and the right to life.” We recognize that people do not have value or rights merely because the government says so, but because we are valued by God and invested with just rights by Him.

The greatest and proudest moments in American history have been when we defended human dignity. The WWII generation, which is called the Greatest Generation, defended the world from Nazism and liberated the concentration camps. In our time, we have given hundreds of millions of dollars in tsunami relief for people in Southeast Asia. We have never meet these people and will likely never meet them in this life, but when we saw them on TV we knew they were human beings just like us and we had to do something. I also believe we have good reason in our day to be proud of our armed forces because they are protecting the innocent from the kind of people who execute women in soccer stadiums and who strap bombs to the young and send them into market places. In as much as our troops are defending human dignity abroad, I believe that’s something to be very, very proud of.

On the other hand, the saddest and most regrettable moments in our history have been where we failed to defend human dignity. Such as the oppression of the Native Americans, the institution of slavery, or our history of racial prejudice. Remember learning about history when you were a kid?  Perhaps you remember saying things like this: “If I had lived in the South in those days, I wouldn’t have owned slaves,” or, “If I had lived in Nazi Germany, I wouldn’t have been silent.” But the truth is that when you are living in a particular time it can be frighteningly easy to accept things as just the way things are. In one hundred years, when American school children look back at our times, about what will they say, “How could they have been so blinded, so indifferent, to what was going on in their midst? Why didn’t they do more to defend human dignity from conception to natural death?”

In short, everything I have said today, about the Gospel, our financial fears and this pivotal election can be summed up in this: We belong to God, we bear His image and He values us, so give yourself to Him.

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