Render to God the Things that are God's
Gospel Reflection for October 22, 2023 - Matthew 22:15-21
Then the Pharisees going, consulted among themselves how to insnare him in his speech.
And they sent to him their disciples with the Herodians, saying: Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou dost not regard the person of men.
Tell us therefore what dost thou think, is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?
But Jesus knowing their wickedness, said: Why do you tempt me, ye hypocrites?
Shew me the coin of the tribute. And they offered him a penny.
And Jesus saith to them: Whose image and inscription is this?
They say to him: Caesar's. Then he saith to them: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's. (Matthew 22:15-21 DRA)
Do we know what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Are we willing to render to God that which belongs to Him? These are the questions proposed by Our Lord in this Sunday’s Gospel. Going beyond the trap set for him by the Pharisees, through which they intended to force Him either to reject taxation and become a criminal before Rome, or else embrace idolatry and deny God’s sovereignty, Christ instead gives a deeper lesson in the true meaning of humility and ownership. He reveals the profound truth that the things most loved by this fallen world, most of all wealth and political power, have no value to God unless they are put to the service of His Kingdom. While Christ exhorts us throughout His ministry to give alms to the poor and to use our treasures and authority for the common good and the right worship of God, here He clarifies that wealth and power of themselves belong only to this passing world. They are not permanent, nor is their worth eternal. For this reason, like the animals sacrificed in the Jewish Temple chosen because they were worshiped by pagans, we are called to sacrifice the idols of wealth and power for God.
This interpretation of Christ’s famous phrase is relatively popular and tends to be emphasized in homilies whenever this Gospel is read, and rightly so. There is, however, another point made by Our Lord which is brought to light by the Psalm: “Worship the Lord, in holy attire.” We know what belongs to Caesar, and the consequences of evading his taxation – but do we know what belongs to God? Taxation may represent pious submission to the State, but what is authentic submission to God? All of Creation belongs to God, including the materials of which money is made, the lands belonging to the State and even Caesar himself. The world is a gift from God, and we are a gift to ourselves, a gratuitous outpouring of His infinite and divine love. To be sanctified by this love into His perfect likeness, we are called to holiness, to be set apart from the world, purified of sinful distortions until His image in us is a clear reflection. Through the Sacraments, works of mercy and doctrines of the Church, as well as the prayers, wisdom and spiritual exercises of the saints, God has given us the means to be healed of sin and divinized in union with Him. In this way, we render to God the things that are God’s, namely, the gifts of Creation, the worship of the Church and our very selves.
As difficult as it may be to pay taxes to Caesar, rendering to God the things that are His is infinitely harder. It requires self-examination, self-denial and self-sacrifice, giving up our sinful habits and making ourselves vulnerable to the ire of the world and the assaults of the Devil. Truly, nothing in life is more difficult than Christian holiness, and it is for this reason that the world despises it, condemns it and ridicules it. Even many Christians attempt to water down holiness until it simply means “being nice,” tolerating evil and going along with the evil trends of the world. Ultimately, the things of God are sacred, prior to any governmental ownership: human dignity, the family, the natural world and the Church. These are what must be conserved and offered to God, and these are what the world most hates. Through abortion, euthanasia, sexual exploitation (most heinously of children), gender ideology, slavery, genocide, terrorism – all of these are weapons of Satan to profane the sacred, to steal that which belongs only to God. Christians today must rediscover the courage to love all people while standing resolutely for the truth of God’s law and defending, even with their very lives, what is most sacred.
When we go to Mass and receive God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament, do we appreciate this sacredness? Do we strive to approach the Lord worthily, in holiness, modesty and purity, free from sin and filled with humble reverence before His Throne? Or do we dress as if we are going to the beach, wearing flipflops and shorts, or revealing clothing that distracts our neighbors and offends God? Do we habitually arrive late to Mass or leave early? Do we approach the Eucharist with the same casualness with which the modern world treats sacred things, even the sanctity of human life? Imagine Moses behaving in such a way before the shekinah of God’s glory-cloud, or when approaching Him in the Burning Bush. Imagine St. Peter, who fell before the Lord in reverence and holy fear, instead joking and looking at his cellphone and waiting eagerly for the chore to end so he can get on to something more important. We cannot even imagine it, yet we do it every time we go to Mass and dress or act with shameful casualness. Likewise, those who wear finery and drive obscenely expensive vehicles only to show them off at Church and demonstrate God’s favor by their wealth are confusing the things of Caesar with the things of God, exchanging truth for a lie and condemning themselves in their vanity and arrogance. We must be ever vigilant against all forms of idolatry and any offense against the sacred things of God, especially in a world where nothing is sacred.
Today we celebrate the feast of Pope St. John Paul the Great. May his example and teachings, particularly the Theology of the Body, inspire us to a deeper appreciation of the sacredness of human life, the dignity of modesty, and the necessity of justice for true peace.
In view of laws which permit abortion and in view of efforts, which here and there have been successful, to legalize euthanasia, movements and initiatives to raise social awareness in defence of life have sprung up in many parts of the world. When, in accordance with their principles, such movements act resolutely, but without resorting to violence, they promote a wider and more profound consciousness of the value of life, and evoke and bring about a more determined commitment to its defence. [...] This situation, with its lights and shadows, ought to make us all fully aware that we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’. We find ourselves not only ‘faced with’ but necessarily ‘in the midst of’ this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life. (Evangelium Vitae)
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