Monday, October 20, 2008

rendering to caesar

Only when the Tao is forgotten
do kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
the great pretence begins.
When there is no peace with the family,
filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
loyal ministers appear.
Tao Te Ching #18
(The following was my homily for this Sunday’s readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6 Matthew22:15-21––which were quite timely for the nearness of the election, and coinciding with a much touted book by Archibishop Chaput of Denver, also titled, Rendering to Caesar.)

In these days of political sound bytes, this is certainly one of Jesus’ best ones. You can almost see it passing by on the running banner under the newscast on FOX or CNN: Jesus: Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s; and to God what is God’s.

What you might not get at first listen from this reading from the prophet Isaiah–– especially if you, like me, don’t understand nor hear it in Hebrew––is that King Cyrus is being called “the Lord’s anointed,” in Hebrew the word is masiah or messiah. In this case this word doesn’t mean “the promised one,” or the who will bring about a final age, as it is understood in some cases and comes to be understood later by Jews around the time of Jesus. It generally simply refers to kings. But there is still a surprise: this particular messiah king isn’t a Jew! This is the only time in the Hebrew Scriptures that a foreigner is called “the Lord’s anointed.” Cyrus is the Persian king who was allowing the Jews to return to the Holy Land from their exile in Babylon in the name of his god, Bel-Marduk. But God through the prophet claims to be guiding Cyrus’ hand even though Cyrus does not know it. God is making sure that history converges to fulfill the divine plan for this tiny little nation.

So it’s interesting to read this passage from the Gospel of Matthew in this light. Here we are dealing with another foreign occupier––this time Rome’s Caesar. This question of paying taxes might have been a problem to some of the Jews of that time because in a sense it is an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of a foreign pagan over Israel, not unlike the time of King Cyrus and the Babylonian exile. It’s also worth noting that God seems to have only reluctantly allowed Israel to have a king at all back in the days of Saul, David and Solomon. They wanted to be “like the other nations.” And Jesus has about the same attitude. He is certainly not being an anarchist, nor is he being quietistic. He is merely accepting the state as a kind of necessary evil, and one assumes just as God has worked through the hand of the pagan king Cyrus, so God could work through the pagan Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar son of the Divine Augustus, great high priest,” as the inscription on the coin would have read. “Whatever!” Jesus seems to be saying. The really important things are deeper. Besides that, in the words of the great Jewish teacher Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus who may have been influential on Jesus’ own thought, we should pray for the peace of the ruling power, since without it people would swallow each other alive.

Also included in this little Gospel passage, by the way, is the biblical justification and inspiration for what is known as the “preferential option for the poor”: as they say of Jesus “you do not regard a person’s status.” This is expressing a basic biblical notion of justice, an impartiality that refuses to take a bribe and would generally tend to favor of the poor.

All of these things are salient for us right now as we face this election here in America, and an end to this agonizingly protracted campaign. Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular does not allow us any kind of quietism in regards to our citizenship. It teaches instead that it is our duty as citizens of the land we live in to contribute, along with our civil authorities, to the good of society “in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom.” It is our freedom in America and our system of justice that affords us the luxury of practicing our religion at all, and it is through that system of government that we can contribute to the good of our society as well as do our best to make sure that there is a preferential option for the poor––the needy, the orphan and the widow that the Bible loves to refer to, not to mention “Joe the plumber.” So we are urged over and over again to submit to legitimate authorities as much as we can in good conscience, and to serve the common good, to fulfill our roles in the life of the political community. (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2239)

But we've still got a lot of homework to do; let’s be formed and informed by both of our readings. From the first we learn that God does not always work through the most obvious means; God sometimes worked through pagans, unbelievers, foreigners for the Jews, and it could be that God will work for us through someone who at first glance does not appear to be the most obvious Christian leader. (Mind you––lest I put Holy Cross’ tax-exempt status in danger––that statement could apply equally to both candidates for president as well as the countless other state and local officials running.) We need always to look at the bigger picture of what needs to be done, where we need to go as a nation to build an environment of justice and peace, of good stewardship of the earth and economic justice for all people, especially a preferential option for the poor and the voiceless from the womb to the tomb.

A second lesson, drawn more from the Gospel, is this: let’s remember what is really important, and render to Caesar only that which is Caesars’. There is a deeper reality beneath our petty notions of justice and peace that cannot be expressed by words or by any form of government. As the Tao Te Ching teaches:
Only when the Tao is forgotten do kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born, the great pretence begins.
When there is no peace with the family, filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos, loyal ministers appear. (#18)
All our systems of justice are pale imitations of the merciful justice of God and have only relative value. There is only one messiah for us, and it is no king, no queen, no president or prime minister––it is the Word, the Word made flesh––or as the Chinese translate the beginning of the Gospel of John, “The Tao was made flesh and lived among us”––in Jesus who is the living book of God, and the example of his life and death poured out for the sake of the world. And in response to Jesus’ statement, “Give to God what is God’s,” I also want to add, “What is not God’s?!” I am reminded at least of the first words of Psalm 24: The Lord’s are the earth and its fullness; the world and all its peoples. We, and our government leaders, are merely stewards, servants. And good government is not an end––it is a means, a means to the deeper realities of life, a means to ensure that all people, even and perhaps especially the least among us, have the chance to pursue those deeper realities.

As we approach these big decisions, let’s pray that God once again makes history converges to fulfill his designs for our nation and that our hearts and minds are pure enough to discern that will.