Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Our Faith and Public Witness

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

When I began writing this homily a month and a half ago, I wasn’t sure whether it would be preached before the National Elections or in the aftermath. It did seem at the time, that the timing and outcome of the elections would have a significant bearing on my homily. But since I am neither a prophet nor a political pundit, I felt inspired to write a homily that would transcend such specific alignments.  You see, it is not the gospel that must be accommodated to suit the political climate and contemporary situation of our country; on the contrary, it is society and us that must constantly seek to live up to the demands of the gospel.

I know that many suffer from a distaste of politics. Many of you are even tempted not to cast your ballot at all. The options are not very promising. It often feels like we are faced with an almost impossible decision, like having to choose between the devil and his henchman. And yet, we should take solace in God’s providence and His ability to write straight with crooked lines, but it still leaves us wanting. The word crooked has been used quite a bit to describe our political system and politicians in general. I am sure many of you may think that it is too mild a word to describe the present line up of candidates, politicians and parties in general.

How should we Christians view our role in politics today? If the Lord walked among us today, what would He say? Well, the Lord did walk among us when Caesar was the ruler of the Roman Empire. And the very subject that occasioned this discussion then remains the same issue that continues to trouble many of us today – taxation. Caesar presided over a corrupt and unjust system of government that exacted oppressive taxes and resources from colonised nations, including the Jewish people. These taxations made daily life almost unbearable.  There was the income tax: one percent of one’s income was to be given to Rome, and then, the ground tax or property tax: one tenth of all grain and one fifth of all oil and wine were to be paid in kind or in coinage to Rome.  Finally, to further humiliate the colonised, there was the poll tax: a denarius or a day’s wage was to be paid to Rome by all men ages 14-65 and all women ages 12-65, to remind of them of their subjugated status. The method of taxation alone had the extra twist of usurping money through the agency of the Jews’ own people, who were allowed to tack on additional amounts that were over and above that due to Caesar.

Ironically, the Pharisees and the Herodians, who were traditional enemies, ‘ganged up’ to set this trap for the Lord. This was the question posed to Him, “Master … Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” With a slight adjustment, this very question could easily be asked by any tax paying or I may add, tax evading Malaysian. A rejection by Jesus of the poll tax would have been reported as treason to Rome. On the other hand, if Jesus had agreed to pay it, the Pharisees would have accused Him of betraying His own people. Discerning a plot of entrapment, Our Lord cuts through the hypocrisy and political differences to the very heart of the matter, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

This saying does three crucial things. First, it acknowledges that Caesar does have rights; that a difference does exist between the concerns of God and the concerns of Caesar. But second, Jesus desacralises – in effect, he demotes – Caesar by suggesting that Caesar has no rights over those things that belong to God. Only God is God, which means that Caesar is not God. And thirdly, the Lord remains silent about what exactly belongs to either God or Caesar. Figuring all that out belongs to us.  Now, this can be hard work because no detailed map exists because while human nature doesn’t change, human circumstances change all the time.

This saying provides us with a framework for how we should think about religion and the state even today. The Lord reminds us that Caesar does have rights. Scripture tells us that we owe secular leaders our respect and prayers; respect for the law; obedience to proper authority; and service to the common good. But it’s a rather modest list of duties. And we need to remember that “respect” for Caesar does not mean subservience, or silence, or inaction, or excuse-making or acquiescence to grave evil. Sometimes, Christians suffer from a phony unwillingness to offend that poses as prudence and good manners, but in truth, this is only a guise for cowardice. It is true that human beings owe each other respect and appropriate courtesy, but, we also owe each other the truth!

In fact, the more we reflect on today’s passage, the more we realise that everything important about human life belongs not to Caesar but to God: our intellect, our talents, our free will, the people we love, Truth, the beauty and goodness in the world, our soul, our moral integrity and of course, our hope for eternal life. These are the things worth struggling to ennoble and defend, and none of them came from Caesar or anyone or any government who succeeded him. We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience. However, that obedience is limited by what belongs to God.  In reality, all belongs to God and nothing — at least nothing permanent and important — belongs to Caesar. Why? Because just as the coin bears the stamp of Caesar’s image, we bear the stamp of God’s image in baptism. We belong to God, and only to God. 

The Church is not a political organism and she has no interest in partisanship. Yes, our faith is never primarily about politics; but Catholic social action – including political action – is always a natural by-product of the Church’s moral teachings. The Catholic faith is always personal, but it’s never private. If our faith is real, then it will bear fruit in our public decisions and behaviours, including our political choices. Each of us has the vocation to be a missionary of Jesus Christ where we live and work and vote. Each of us is called to bring Christian truth to the public debate, to be vigorous and unembarrassed about our Catholic presence in society, and to be a leaven in our nation's public life. 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. For to do so would mean denying who we are, “salt of the earth” and “light to the nations.”

In living out and exercising our public duties and rights, each of us needs to follow his or her own properly formed conscience. But the problem is that many people mistake their own preconceived ideas, opinions and prejudices as the voice of conscience. You see, conscience is not a matter of personal opinion or preference. It takes prayer, study and work. If our conscience has the habit of telling us what we want to hear on difficult issues, then we probably have a badly formed conscience. A healthy conscience is the voice of God’s truth in our hearts, and it should usually make us uncomfortable. The way we get a healthy conscience is by opening our hearts to the counsel and guidance of the Church that Jesus Christ left for us. As Catholics, if we find ourselves disagreeing with the teaching of our Catholic faith on a serious matter, it's probably not the Church that’s wrong. The problem is much more likely with us. The more authentically Catholic we are in our lives, our choices, our actions and our convictions, then will we contribute more truly to the moral and political life of our nation.

If you had participated in the last elections and went out to vote, kudos to you for having done your Christian duty. If the elections are just around the corner or still in the pipelines, I would like to strongly encourage you to go out and vote.

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