Monday, October 17, 2011

The Things That Are God's

29 Sunday A #145

Is 45, 1. 4-6
Ps 96
1Thes 1, 1-5b
Mt 22, 15-21

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
October 16, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

“Is it lawful to pay the tax to Cesar or not?” His enemies were trying to trap Jesus and denounce him, to Jewish patriots if he said yes or to the Romans and the Temple authorities if he said no: Jesus gets out of their trap by answering, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” What might these words mean for us today? Whatever they mean, it’s all about Jesus. It’s not about Caesar or government or citizenship or even faith or personal responsibility: it is about all these things but seen through the lens of Jesus himself, his life, his words, his works.

Try to picture him and hear his words as if you were there. The rosary is meant to help us do just that, from the Annunciation to his Passion and Death and Resurrection. We let our fingers do the counting as we picture the events. What did Jesus look like? Make your own image, as you will. It doesn’t really matter what Jesus looked like. If it did, then Matthew, Mark, Luke or John would have told us. Make him the pale-faced, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired Anglo-Saxon you see on the walls of the YMCA if that helps you. I see a Jew, a young man grown into full maturity, with jet black hair, and a good size nose set between large, gentle brown eyes. His face is framed by a short black beard. He is dark from the desert sun. He’s average in height, lean but strong, and he stands straight and moves deliberately. He has an easy way with children; they flock to him. He knows hard work by the look of him. Men respect him. Women find him handsome. He is reserved but not at all distant. He doesn’t chatter. When he speaks people listen, and he looks straight at you, and into you.

Today, Jesus and his companions are in the Temple area. Crowds have gathered. Word had spread of this new young preacher and healer, a cousin of John the Baptist. He had upset the tables of the merchants in that same Temple courtyard, and he had upset the Temple authorities even more. The Roman governor, Pilate, wanted peace and quiet, the peace of subservience. The authorities had considered arresting Jesus before but they were afraid of the people’s reaction if they did; they might riot.

Jesus uses a harsh word for those who would trap him: hypocrites, not condemning all scribes or Pharisees, mind you, but the ones who do not practice what they preach. For this he is seen as a subversive. The Temple priests have reason to fear. Jesus’ teaching is subversive. Jesus’ teaching will always be subversive to any social system that exploits the weak for the advantage of the strong. “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the humble; they shall inherit the land!” “Not if we have anything to say about it!” say the strong. Today too; it’s always been the same.

The chief priest Caiphas will say, “Better that one man should die than that the whole people perish” (Jn 18,14). He has a point, but he is wrong. It is never right to commit evil that good may come of it. But Caiphas fears the Romans will come down hard if there is any hint of rebellion. That’s what the Roman did, whenever there was a threat to the Empire, without mercy. Mercy, compassion, was seen as a weakness by the ancient Romans and Greeks, emasculating. Only the God of Abraham is merciful. For the rest, mercy is not a virtue but a fault to be got rid of.

Most peoples of the Roman Empire were glad to have the protection of the Roman army. They were honored to have their gods set up in the Pantheon in Rome. Not the Jews! But Jesus was not concerned with the Roman Empire, nor any empire. His eye was set on the kingdom of God. And so he taught his disciples to set their eyes on what is to come, for the world as we know it is passing, and to pray “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven,” and to live the kingdom here and now.

Sometimes Jesus’ sayings were hard to take, “Turn the other cheek,” “Walk a second mile,” “Do not resist evil,” “Forgive seventy times seven,” “It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” But the people loved him. Lazarus and Mary and Martha loved him. People of means as well as the common folk found that he touched their hearts as no one had before. Jesus did not preach politics, the politics of accommodation or resistance or revolution. He preached the peace of the kingdom of God and his justice. Justice and peace often seem at odds with one another in this world, but in the kingdom of God justice and peace embrace. Jesus’ goal is that kingdom. His tactics are prayer, intimate union with God in the depths and silence of the human heart, the works of mercy curing and teaching, and self-control, self-denial, even unto death. For this world is passing away.

The things that are God’s are the judgments of conscience. Conscience is that quiet voice that reminds us of the right path when we are tempted, reason distinguishing right from wrong in accordance with the law of God. Conscience is an active search for the good and the right. It’s not just “what I feel.” A lot of people seem to think nothing is wrong if you don’t think it’s wrong. That’s wrong! Some things are always wrong, no matter who does them or for what reason, like killing the innocent. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it most beautifully:

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. … (M)an has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is his very dignity; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of every person. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths (Gaudium et spes #16).

Everyone has a conscience, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, believers and non-believers. But for the Christian there is one thing more. That is the person of Jesus Christ, the very revelation of God. The words and the example of Jesus: these make all the difference. From our earliest youth we are taught to look to Jesus as our truest, most constant friend. Through our years we see Jesus as the invisible guest at the table, our companion on the way. “Stay with us a while. Evening draws near….”

The things that are God’s? Love him with all your heart and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, for Christ’s sake. Then the things that are Caesar’s will fall into place. 