Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Give back to God what belongs to God

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis may be the darling of the secular press, but he isn’t the only Pope that had engaged the secular media on their turf. In 2012, the year before his shocking resignation, Pope Benedict was approached by the Financial Times to write a Christmas piece. The Pope wrote about Christian life in the world. It is a life that did not begin in the agora, the public market place, the public forum of man, but rather a life that began in Bethlehem. The Pope began his article with the words of Jesus we just heard read from today’s gospel, “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”

That famously cryptic comment serves as a reminder of the question-mark that hangs over life, especially the relationship between religion or Church, and the State or government.  Over the centuries, many Christians have based their attitudes toward government on this passage. Some have thought that Jesus' statement establishes two separate realms, Caesar's and God's, and that people should render to each what they ask for in their respective realms. This interpretation strikes many modern persons as obviously correct, given the problems we witness when religion is subjugated by the State as a state ideology that colours every aspect of public life.  Yet in their historical context, these words of Jesus had little to do with taxation or political authority in general, what more of Church-State relation.

Jews in the first century paid several taxes: tithes to the Temple, customs taxes, and taxes on land. The people identified as Jesus' opponents were not questioning taxes in general. Their question was more specific: " Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" The question could be seen in the light of a growing nationalism that resented the dominance of a foreign colonial power as well as the potential problem of idolatry. You have to understand that Caesar, the emperor of Rome, was not only the head of an imperial domination system, but also the principal deity of an official state promoted religion. Julius Caesar was the first historical Roman to be officially deified. He was posthumously granted the title Divus Iulius (the divine Julius or the deified Julius) by decree of the Roman Senate. Divus Iulius was not a secondary god, but was made equivalent to the highest God of the Roman Empire, Jove.

The gospel story begins with a Pharisee complimenting Jesus for his honesty, integrity and ability to communicate the message of God authentically. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this is just an attempt to fatten the prize cow before the kill. The question that follows is a trap, “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” The hated tax was a humiliating symbol of subjugation and where the Pharisees resisted it, the Herodians who were Roman collaborators, favoured the tax. If Jesus supported paying tribute to the colonial masters he would be discredited as a prophet, on two accounts, for being disloyal to the nationalist cause as well as idolatry. If however, he argued against paying the tax, it would be an act of sedition, and we know how this is effectively being used in this country to silence critics and detractors. It’s a Catch 22 situation, “damn if you do, damn if you don’t.”

But “Jesus was aware of their malice” and denounced their hypocrisy. He then ingeniously asked them to produce a coin. Now this an embarrassing exposé – why were these sanctimonious puritans in possession of such a coin? They, who had denounce others for their idolatry and turn-coat collaboration with the colonial authorities, were themselves guilty of possessing a coin that was blasphemous – it possessed a graven image of a self-declared Emperor-God. It is here that we hear those classic words, “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”

According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, “Jesus’ answer deftly moves the argument to a higher plane, gently cautioning against both the politicisation of religion and the deification of temporal power, along with the relentless pursuit of wealth. His audience needed to be reminded that the Messiah was not Caesar, and Caesar was not God. The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was of an altogether higher order. As he told Pontius Pilate: “My kingship is not of this world.” Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Cabinets and Sultans think they are sacral powers and claim divine attributes; Jesus demystifies this sacrility. God alone is Lord and earthly rulers at most receive a divine stewardship under which they are to ensure political order by God’s commission. For realising this Christians will pay a bloody price. Christians have faced and continue to face martyrdom, persecution and marginalisation for refusing to give to Caesar what belongs ultimately to God.

Thus, “(give) to God what belongs to God” is the answer to the first part of the riddle, “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Needless to say, everything belongs to God, because man is created according to God’s image, not Caesar’s, and because God is Ruler over all earthly kings. According to Pope Benedict, “if the image of Caesar was stamped on Roman coins which for this reason were to be rendered to him, the human heart bears the imprint of the Creator, the one Lord of our life,” and thus has to be rendered wholly to God.

Nevertheless, Caesar does have rights.  We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience.  But that obedience is limited by what belongs to God.  Caesar is not God.  Only God is God, and the state is subordinate and accountable to God for its treatment of human persons, all of whom were created by God.  This has implications of how Christians should view political life. First, all political leaders draw their authority from God.  We owe no leader any submission or cooperation in the pursuit of grave evil.  In fact, we have the duty to change bad laws and resist grave evil in our public life, both by our words and our non-violent actions.  The truest respect we can show to civil authority is the witness of our Catholic faith and our moral convictions, without excuses or apologies. Second, in democracies, we elect public servants, not messiahs. It’s quite clear from recent events in our country, that our political leaders all possess, without distinction, feet of clay.  Thus, no politician, policy or law should be above the critique of faith and morals.

The “separation of Church and state” does not mean – and it can never mean – separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and our political actions.  It is certainly a mistake to think that in his reply Jesus is dividing life into two spheres, the secular and the sacred, as so many people have supposed. That kind of separation would require Christians to deny who we are; to repudiate Jesus when he commands us to be “leaven in the world” and to “make disciples of all nations.”  That kind of radical separation privatises our faith and steals the moral content of a society. It would require us to live schizophrenic existence, as part-time Christians, which is wholly untenable.

In the last two months, the celebration of Hari Merdeka and Malaysia Day, are potent reminders of our citizenship in this country. But today, we are reminded by the gospel that we serve Caesar best by serving God first. We honour our nation best by living our Catholic faith honestly and vigorously, and bringing it without apology into the public square and its debates.  We are citizens of heaven first.  We are called to live in his world, but ultimately, we do not belong to the World. But just as God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so the glory and irony of the Christian life is this:  The more faithfully we love God, the more truly we serve the world.

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