October 18, 2017

Homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 22, 2017, Year A

Roman money


Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
Hartford, Connecticut


At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has already passed two “tests”— spot quizzes, if you like —concocted by his adversaries. Apparently they haven’t learned their lesson. In their malice they have come back, only to be confounded once again.

The issue wasn’t just whether one ought to pay taxes. It had to do with the Imperial Tax, the tribute levied on peoples subject to the Roman empire. The moneys raised were not for services provided, but to keep the people in subjection and enrich the empire. It was certainly perceived as an unjust tax, an unlawful tax.

We can relate to that. In our own experience, the law is everywhere. It is intended to guarantee our rights and protect our freedom. But we like some laws better than others, depending on the extent to which they affect our property and our freedom.

Here is an interesting case in point. There was an article in last Monday’s local paper on a shooting range in Vermont, near the Connecticut River. The noise can be heard, loud and clear and all day long, across the river in New Hampshire. We would all agree that the right to bear arms does not bestow the right to disturb your neighbors in their own home; nor does the right to tranquility in one’s own home violate the right to bear arms. Nevertheless, the situation has had a polarizing effect, to say the least, and it will probably be quite some time before a solution is found that will be both “lawful” and just.

The second half of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians says that we must repay to God what belongs to God. Now there was such a thing as a “temple tax,” but it would be ludicrous to think Jesus meant that.

Very often this passage is interpreted as applying to situations where civil law and Church teaching are in conflict. It is even used sometimes as a sort of club to beat Christian politicians into submission. I cannot believe that is what Jesus intended.

There is a challenge in this text, certainly. But if we look at the context of the overall relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, it is a prophetic challenge, much broader than the political sphere. Twice in the first reading God says, “I am the Lord, there is no other.” The Pharisees and company seem to have forgotten that, setting themselves up as legislator, police, judge and jury.

The challenge, then, is much more along the lines of the words of St. Paul in the second reading, the “work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.” This is not first and foremost about life in the political sphere, but it is certainly not divorced from the political sphere either.

If we are to return to God what belongs to God, let our starting point be the attitude of Psalm 116: “How can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me?... My vows to the Lord I will fulfill before all his people.”

What vows? In Jesus’ world, the commitment to the two Great Commandments, love of God and love of neighbor. In our Christian and Catholic world, the baptismal promises: rejecting Satan and espousing the faith as a way of life. It doesn’t stop on the day of our baptism, does it?

No. It’s everywhere, every day. We must repay to God what belongs to God, in our personal life, our social life, our professional life and, yes, even our political life.

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