Monday, October 17, 2011

11-10-16: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1,4-6 / Psalm 96 / 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5 / Matthew 22:15-21

One of the most memorable lines in cinema comes from Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Parliament had just passed a law which demanded all subjects to swear an oath of allegiance to King Henry VIII as head of the Church, thereby severing the bond of unity with the pope – not an easy bit to swallow if you were a loyal Catholic. Thomas More’s daughter, Meg the young idealist, confronts her father with the news fully expecting him to nobly denounce this affront to religious liberty. But More, pragmatic and clever, sadly disappoints her when he demands to read the oath that, with his lawyer’s eye, he might find a loophole to squeeze through and so, literally, save his neck. Why, his daughter asks. Listen, Meg, he says. God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the Oath, I will. Sadly Thomas More could not find that loophole but nevertheless remained true to his conscience and was executed for high treason.

In today’s gospel Jesus sounds a lot like the less-than-idealistic Thomas More when confronted with the hot political issue of his time – to pay the Roman tax or not. One might even interpret his words as a bit of a cop out. For an ardent Jew of Jesus’ time paying the Roman tax was sinful. Obviously, however, if Jews refused to pay the tax, the Roman government would impose increasingly severe sanctions on everyone. It was, for Jesus, a political quagmire. The beauty of Jesus’ response rests in its humanness – our natural business lies in escaping.

Thankfully Catholics in America do not live under foreign oppression, as did the ancient Jews. But we do live in a pluralistic society where differing values and political priorities will inevitably cause friction between church and state: not only in policies regarding abortion and government-mandated insurance coverage of contraception, but also in social issues like same-sex marriage, gay adoption, capitol punishment, and how we deal with illegal immigration.

Paul VI defined the Church as a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God. From our Catholic perspective the Church is, like Christ, both human and divine in her nature. Yet, it might be beneficial to note that although Jesus could have answered the politically charged question by invoking a divine mandate - no, never compromise, do not pay the Roman tax - Jesus rather responds from the tangle of his human mind and, for that moment, cleverly and coyly escapes the confrontation. In social and reproductive issues some bishops invoke the church’s divine-side, so to speak, and declare that we as Catholics cannot compromise on any or all of these issues. We must take our stand, draw the line, resist, separate ourselves from this messy pluralistic society where our pristine values are compromised; and so cease to engage the body politic, forfeiting our work for the common good.

Perhaps those bishops who see the confrontation between Church and State as inevitable will ultimately be proved right and we will all have to choose one side or the other. But, it seems to me, that we may have too quickly rushed to judgment regarding how we engage these important issues. Perhaps at this moment in American history we do not need bishops filled so much with idealism and blind loyalty as much as men quite human, clever enough to search out those loopholes in law, cognizant of our natural business of escaping confrontation, serving God and the Church in the coy and clever tangle of compromise. This side of heaven, we must still, after all, render to Caesar. Living the Christian life is not always about we ought to do but, sometimes, settling for what we are able to do.

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