Sunday, October 16, 2005

Church and State

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A; This homily was given 16 October, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

From the very foundation of the Church there has always been a kind of tension between the secular and the sacred, the Church and the State. People on both sides agree that there should be at least some kind of separation, even if they disagree about the nature of that separation.

But in the midst of all the debate on Church and State, we can sometimes forget that God is above all; He’s above the secular and the sacred. We can forget that God can—and does—use both to accomplish His will in this world. He uses both to bring glory to His name.

In the first reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel are in exile; they are longing for deliverance and for a leader who will bring them home and defend them against the nations who have treated them so poorly.

How surprising to find that God’s response to them—to their prayers and desires—is a king who knows not the God of Israel. God chooses for Himself a secular leader, King Cyrus from Persia, to deliver His people. As He says in Isaiah:

For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by your name . . . though you knew me not. —Isaiah 45:4

God goes so far as to call Cyrus His “anointed one”, literally His “Christ,” the one who He has chosen to be His instrument in the lives of the people of Israel. There is no separation of Church and State when it comes to God.

In the Gospel we have both the secular and the sacred united once again, but this time in an attempt to trip Jesus up, to trap Him in His words. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time, and the Herodians, the officials that King Herod had appointed—have teamed up to catch Jesus off guard. It’s a marriage of convenience—the Pharisees and the Herodians—united in a single effort to ensnare Him.

They ask, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” What a dilemma. Either Jesus is loyal to the oppressed people of Israel, or He is loyal to Caesar. And Jesus replies with that famous answer: “Whose image is [on the coin]?”


Then “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” It’s a great response! The short answer is, “Yes, it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar.” By no means does God advocate tax evasion. “Pay your taxes,” Jesus says.

But there is more going on here than just a clever response on the part of Jesus. Jesus is saying something more; He’s talking about the relationship between the secular and the sacred, politics and religion. We need to be careful that we do not misunderstand the relationship between these two. Each of them has it’s own legitimate dimension. The State cannot legislate religion. We know that. The Church, on the other hand, has no business determining the laws of the state. That would make it a theocracy; it’s what they have in Islam. God’s plan for us is different.

Yet there is—of necessity—a relationship between the two that does not allow a complete separation. Even the laws of the State have to be in line with the natural law, the law of God. The whole Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was based on this. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so successful in achieving equal rights precisely because he understood the connection between the Church and the State.

He was able to challenge the unjust laws of the State not because he was a great statesman, but because he was a man of God. He understood that racism and discrimination are not merely a legal problem; they cannot be eliminated by simply changing a few laws. Ultimately they are a moral problem, a spiritual sickness that requires a response from the State and the Church, as well.

That’s what Christ means when He says, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” As people of faith we have a responsibility to influence every aspect of life, not just the personal and private sphere. We should live our faith in such a way that it has an effect on all areas of life. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, influencing everything around us. That’s what it means to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

There’s a great quote from C.S. Lewis that talks about this very need to prioritize our faith and the way we live our daily lives. He says that:

The men and women who did the most for this world, were the ones who thought mostly of the world to come. Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.

If you look at history, I think that you will find that nothing could be closer to the truth.

I was walking through Pawtucket City Hall the other day, and I passed by an alcove that had a display set up, and from the corner of my eye it looked like it could be a crèche scene, a manger scene. I thought to myself: “That’s impossible; there’s no way I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing here.

When I got closer I was shocked to find that it wasn’t a manger scene at all, but a memorial honoring Pope John Paul II . . . right there in the middle of Pawtucket City Hall! There was a bronze statue of the Pope, surrounded by hundreds of other statues of people from all over the world, from all walks of life. On the back wall there were dozens of magazine covers and newspapers with John Paul II on them, saying Mass, praying with people, addressing leaders of nations. It was remarkable.

A sign above the display said that they were observing Polish National Month, but if you think about it, it was really a testimony to the union of the sacred and the secular, a monument to a man who so lived out his faith in Christ and his vocation that it couldn’t help but spill over into all the areas of our world, both politics and religion, right into city hall itself. Pope John Paul II was a man who rendered
“to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

As we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist in this sacred place this morning, let us take a moment to acknowledge that all things are of God’s making, and He is able to bring glory to His name in both the Church and the State.

And may we also be aware of the fact that God desires to transform the world here in this place this morning, but also in the workplace and in the office on Monday morning and on Tuesday afternoon. We offer Him this morning every aspect of our lives, all that we are. And may we truly discover in our lives this week that we have repaid “to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”