HOMILY 29TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME CYCLE “A” October 16, 2011
"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.
Well they might go away amazed. Jesus slipped through their carefully laid trap. That was a pretty nifty answer Jesus gave: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” I happen to have a dollar bill here. It has Washington’s portrait on it. Today Jesus might say, “Give to Washington what belongs to Washington, and to God what belongs to God.”
While this is a very good answer, we need to understand it correctly. The unspoken assumption behind Jesus’ statement is that EVERYTHING comes from God, and everything belongs to God. We owe everything to God, but in a way different than we owe taxes to the government.
I think it is easy to distort this response of Jesus into a way Jesus never intended. We could - rather easily - begin to think that there are in fact two different areas or spheres in our life: God’s sphere and Caesar’s or the world’s sphere. We then slip into living in a world that is split, or bifurcated into two different and separate realms: the realm of God and the realm of the world. God gets Sunday morning and perhaps a few minutes every day when we pray, and the world basically gets the rest. We then adopt one sort of codes and rules for one realm, and a different set of rules for the other. Then our world has become split between the secular and the sacred, the holy and the profane, the realm of God and the realm of Caesar or Washington; that is, of worldly power.
It is all too easy to do this. It is a lot more convenient to divide the world this way. But this is not at all what Jesus was talking about. There is only one realm, and that is God’s realm. The first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is all about very secular politics, the power plays and intrigues and competing empires of the ancient Middle East. It was just as secular and hard-nosed and cynical as the current political situation of the Middle East. And yet the Prophet Isaiah sees this totally secular situation as part of religious history, and God as the real actor in the playing out of imperial power-struggles. Isaiah states: “I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not,…” Ultimately it is God who is in charge of all this mess. Is God in charge of the mess in the Middle East and Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan today? Contrary to appearances, our faith tells us YES.
So in telling us to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” Jesus is not telling us to divide our lives between the sacred and the profane, but rather to recognize that everything - even paying taxes - is sacred: it is all part of God’s realm. All belongs to God, and especially all of our life and all of our experiences belong to God.
Let us move on to epistemology. Perhaps you are feeling epistemological today? There is another way of bifurcating our lives and our universe, based on how we know things. A large part of this problem began with Galileo. Prior to him, people learned things by what they received from authorities, usually religious authorities like the Bible, or scientific authorities like Aristotle. But Galileo began to learn by experience. That is what experiments are all about: careful observation of experience. We call this the scientific method. And Galileo began to learn things that conflicted with what he had learned from authorities. The most famous example certainly is that the earth moved around the sun, not the sun moving around the earth. This caused a lot of problems, certainly for Galileo, since the Church, on the authority of Scripture, taught the opposite. Galileo was placed in a dilemma between what he had learned by experience, that is observation and experiment, and what he learned on the other hand from the teaching of the Church.
Well of course Galileo was correct about the sun sitting at the center of the solar system, and eventually people and the Church came to understand that Scriptures - in the well-worn phrase - teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. And for centuries the Church has accepted heliocentrism.
Creationism - a belief in the literal creation of the universe in seven days - has also (in most places) been replaced by the acceptance of the Big Bang Theory, evolution, and a scientific understanding of the immensity and complexity of the universe that makes creation an even more marvelous work of God.
What we have learned from observation and experiment about the physical sciences has - I believe - first challenged but then deepened our appreciation of God’s wonderful ways. This challenge is not over. As observation and experiment have moved beyond the physical sciences to social sciences, a whole new set of challenges has arisen to what is received from our past and is considered as revealed by God.
Some of you may be able to remember the Papal Birth Control Commission established by Pope John XXIII during the Second Vatican Council. The priests, theologians, doctors and laity who worked on this commission came to the conclusion, primarily motivated by the experiences of sincere committed married Catholics, that the teaching of the church on the regulation of birth was able to be changed, and should be changed. Many people expected a change on the morality of artificial means of birth control. However, Pope Paul VI reiterated the church’s ban on artificial means of birth control as intrinsically evil in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
For many people at that time it created a dilemma of choosing between what their experience and the experience of others taught them about the expression of married love, and the clear and authentic teaching of the Church. In that situation, Which do you choose? Which is “truer”? Which is more compelling, more authentic, more of God?
In a similar way today many struggle with a conflict, on the one hand, of what they have learned from their experience of committed same sex couples who are neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members - and the commitment, the compassion, the joy and love they see in these relationships, and on the other hand the clear teaching of the Church that marriage as instituted by God is reserved only to the lifelong commitment of one man and one woman. In that situation, Which do you choose? Which is “truer”? Which is more compelling, more authentic, more of God?
I am NOT trying to make this easy for you. Quite the opposite, I am trying to make it hard, because I think that is what the reality is. This is difficult. But we need to struggle with this because there are not two truths; one secular and one divine. There is not Caesar’s truth and God’s truth. There is only one truth and it all comes from God. The truth that we get from revelation and the truth we get from experience must ultimately be one and the same, because it is all from God.
It is not true to divide the world between secular and sacred, between some things that fall into God’s realm and other things that are outside of God’s realm, but rather in Washington’s or Caesar’s.
The answer can only be found, I believe, in Jesus. He is fully, truly, completely God, and He is fully, truly, completely human, AND (and this is the most important part), He is entirely and totally ONE. There is no bifurcation in Jesus. There is not a divine part of Jesus, and a human part of Jesus, stuck together: as if His right arm is divine but his left is human. No way. He is fully divine, fully human. He is BOTH in each and every part, and He is entirely one. This is why we say that Mary is not just the mother of Jesus, but in fact the mother of God. You cannot separate the divinity and humanity of Jesus. That is pretty difficult for us to get our minds around. But that is TRUE.
While it is difficult and often painful to hold the divine and the secular in union, we cannot use Jesus’ directive to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" as an excuse for dividing our lives into distinct realms of the secular and the sacred. It is all God’s. It is all sacred. It is all one.
As we hear in the Prophet Isaiah today: “ I am the LORD and there is no other,
there is no God besides me.”
there is no God besides me.”