29th Sunday of the Year
In the 1960’s anthropologist Mircea Eliade, in The Sacred and the Profane deals with our tendency to divide the universe into God's world and our world. God tends to the sacred and we tend to the rest. I remember in 2016 when I along with four other people were before a magistrate for having participated in a nonviolent protest at the Prime Minister’s office. The magistrate told us that ‘this is a court of law, not a court of conscience’ he quoted the line from today’s gospel: ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ to back up his assertion. This quote is often used to defend the status quo. It implies that Jesus had no interest in economic or political questions, or identity questions which impact on our actions.
For Jesus, the money-question was about the power it has over people, how it can be not just a possession but possess us, how it can be tied up with our sense of worth, how it takes over our desires and imagination to such an extent that we do not easily imagine ourselves into the lives other people and feel empathy for them. The promise of lower taxes pleases many people. There is much public sentiment against paying taxes - especially, when paid to a foreign occupying power as in Jesus’ time. Jesus’ view is broader. He would not endorse situations or support systems where people just looked after themselves and allowed others to suffer deprivation.
Last week in his latest Encyclical, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis writes, ‘If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone, then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere. My own country also shares responsibility for his or her development, although it can fulfil that responsibility in a variety of ways. It can offer a generous welcome to those in urgent need, or work to improve living conditions in their native lands by refusing to exploit those countries or to drain them of natural resources, backing corrupt systems that hinder the dignified development of their peoples…… At times, the inability to recognize equal human dignity leads the more developed regions in some countries to think that they can jettison the “dead weight” of poorer regions and so increase their level of consumption’ (Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, #125).
We argue about the borders or limits of compassion expressed in caring for the sick, supporting the aged, providing a liveable wage to people who are unemployed or underemployed, accepting and including people who are different, etc. Geography does not matter when it comes to need for housing or coming from a place where there is no security. People failed by their own countries overseas and our country continue to be failed. For some we offer barbed wires and for others no place to safely lay one’s head. By putting borders or limitations on our compassion means we may be cutting ourselves off from those who are held close to God’s heart and ultimately from God.
The gospel raises the question of belonging. To whom do the poor belong? Or asylum seekers? Or the world’s 30 million trafficked people? Is it the places from the places they have come from? Is it the perpetrators? The scriptures insist they belong to God. It is the poor, the neglected and forgotten by the dominant society, the many people trafficked, the countless people seeking asylum, the person who crosses our path seeking recognition.
The question about what belongs to Caesar and to God is a furphy. It is really about where our hearts are: who looks after the poor and vulnerable if there are no taxes? How do we support people living through a pandemic if there are no taxes? How do people in less developed countries get clean water, decent health care, adequate education, and proper transport infrastructure if there are no taxes? So when taxes are cut for the more well-off as they have been recently, then who provides for these people? When Jesus asks about the image on the coin, he is really asking, ‘Who or what are the rivals to God in your life? What people, ideologies, what prejudices, what addictions, what economics, what possessions?’ He’s asking, ‘Where do your loyalties lie?’ He is asking both them and us to do a personal inventory and decide who are the Caesars that we attach ourselves to, and do we sometimes give to them what we should give to God. There are many competing empires that vie for our allegiance. In gospel terms and Catholic social teaching, political policies need to be evaluated by their effect on the most vulnerable.
Jesus' question to those trying to entangle him reminds us that we are all made in God's image. We are icons of God. Wherever that image is violated by political or ecclesial power then we must strive to preserve God's image in the one victimised and the one victimising. God’s only currency
Give back to God what has God's image on it – our humanity. God’s image is everywhere and within. So, Jesus again frustrates any attempt to keep politics and religion in separate tidy boxes. Our lives cannot be cordoned off into the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’. God's presence and actions cannot be confined to narrow categories. For Isaiah, our idea of God is too small. God messes up our neat distinctions. Charles Cousar says, ‘When the divine image is denied and persons are made by political circumstances to be less than human, then the text carries a revolutionary word that has to be spoken to both oppressed and oppressor.’
Ignacio Ellacuria, a Salvadoran liberation theologian, murdered in November 1989, said ‘We are people of the gospel. We are people of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel that proclaims the reign of God and that calls us to transform our world into as close an image of that reign of God as possible.’ We have the capacity within us to help lead our world into the way of justice and peace. We do this when we do not only attend to our own welfare, but to the well-being of people around us. We have been called to the costly work of waging not war but reconciliation.
We have the capacity within us to help lead our world into the way of justice and peace. We do this when we do not only attend to our own welfare, but to the well-being of people around us. We have been called to the costly work of waging not war but reconciliation. Jesus says, ‘Render unto God what is God's.’ Don’t give to any ‘Caesar’ what only belongs to God - the lives of His sons and daughters.
We cannot sacrifice people’s lives, dignity or wellbeing to any power. According to Pope Francis, no power today has sacrificed more lives or caused more suffering, hunger and destruction than this ‘dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal’ that the powerful of the Earth have managed to impose. We can't remain passive and indifferent, silencing the voice of our conscience in religious practice.
In Mary Oliver’s poem A Summer’s Day she asks: ‘Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ It can leave us uncomfortable about we live our lives. We can strive for things we cannot sustain, we chase affirmation, financial stability, job security, success but lose sight of our true desires. Though not bad in themselves, her question reminds us that all we have is the gift of life and we need to live it to the full in communion with God, with God’s Earth and God’s children, our sisters and brothers. We bear God’s image and belong to God. Appreciation of this helps us to see life as a precious gift which allows us to be ‘wasteful’ about things that matter: gratitude, service, beauty, truth, mercy, love, rather than on fearfully gathering up what our culture says we need. Life is to be poured out and shared, not hoarded.