29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
18th October 2020
Year A – Psalter week 1
Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.
The readings today touch on the complex issue of civil leadership. In the first reading from Isaiah, Cyrus is the Persian emperor who overcame the Babylonians. Under Babylonian rule, the Jewish people had been taken into exile. Psalm 137, for example, describes how this felt to the Israelites. It begins: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Sion.” Emperor Cyrus, on the other hand, was now allowing the Jewish people to finally return to their homeland. For the Jewish people, God is always the one in ultimate control, and when the people were ill-treated by civil leaders, they recognised this as the fruit of their own unfaithfulness to God. When, however, they were shown favour from a leader, it was a sign of God’s blessing returning to them as they themselves sought to turn back to God.
In the gospel, Jesus is put on the spot about this issue of civil authority. The Pharisees believed that taxes should not be paid to the Romans who were occupying their land, whereas the Herodian held that it most certainly should be paid. If Jesus were to say that the taxes were not to be paid, then he would be seen by the Pharisees as recognising the Emperor as his Lord, rather than God. If, on the other hand, he had said that taxes should not be paid, then he would have been denounced by the Herodians as a rebel and a traitor to Rome. His reply names the true issue at stake: “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” While the image of the ruling civil leader may be on earthly coins, the image of the living God is stamped upon every human being, who has been made in God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:27). Jesus reminds his listeners to hold lightly the things of earth, and to give all of oneself in the love and service of God, to whom we really belong.
Jesus does not, then, seem to be against civil leadership per se. This is why the Church recognises the legitimate role of civil authorities, and their call to perform their proper functions, such as maintaining law and order and promoting the common good of their citizens. Civil authorities are ultimately responsible to God for their proper governance. There is always, however, the danger that human leadership oversteps the mark, and seeks to take the place of God. Under such regimes, people are then tempted to give to Caesar that which actually belongs to God.
The Church’s teaching on respecting civil authority is actually set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church under the fourth commandment, of honouring our father and mother. Paragraph 2234 states that, “God’s fourth commandment also enjoins on us to honour all who for our good have received authority in society from God. It clarifies the duties of those who exercise authority as well as those who benefit from it.” Paragraphs 2254 to 2257 give a helpful summary of our rights and obligations: “Public authority is obliged to respect the fundamental rights of the human person and the conditions for the exercise of his freedom… It is the duty of citizens to work with civil authority for building up society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom… Citizens are obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)… Every society’s judgments and conduct reflect a vision of man and his destiny. Without the light the Gospel sheds on God and man, societies easily become totalitarian.” We are called, then, to be good citizens, and to recognise the legitimate authority of the state, while at the same time to speak out against unjust structures and ideologies.
In these very challenging times, we are called more than ever, I believe, to pray for God’s blessing upon our civil leaders, that they may receive the light of His wisdom, and the gifts of faith, hope and love. I leave you with the words of St. Paul: “I urge then, first of all that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving should be offered for everyone, for kings and others in authority, so that we may be able to live peaceful and quiet lives with all devotion and propriety. To do this is right, and acceptable to God our Saviour: he wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Sunday Message and Look
Download this weeks Sunday Message and Look (for our younger parishioners) by clicking on the images, for all the readings for this week, as well as the prayers during mass and the usual weekly thoughts and reflections.
Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. Alleluia!