Recently I met with a group of young adults that gathers every month in St. Joseph's Basilica to discuss matters of faith. At one point, some of them shared with me the challenges they face when they seek to give witness to their faith in the workplace, the university or even at home. What is particularly painful and difficult is the fact that they often find themselves mocked or rejected. This is not the first time people have shared this quandary with me. It is real, and certainly not easy.
Sunday’s Gospel text from St. Matthew (22:15-22) gave us one of the most famous sayings of Jesus: "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." (15:21) There are a number of levels of meaning at play in these words of our Lord. Together they help us appreciate why we, the disciples of Jesus Christ, deeply desire to give witness to our faith before others, and why we encounter at times a negative and hostile reaction.
At one level these words of Jesus remind us that we all have dual citizenship. On the one hand, we are part of a sovereign nation, in my case Canada. As citizens, we recognize the legitimate authority of the State to govern us in justice, to assure our security, to provide basic services such as infrastructure, education and healthcare, and so on. To this legitimate authority, we owe our duty to obey the laws of the land, to contribute to the common good and to pay taxes. On the other hand, because of our union with Christ through Baptism, we also have, even now, citizenship in heaven, our true homeland. As members of this citizenry, what we owe God is our worship, the gift of our entire lives to Him in faith and trust. We owe Him our complete obedience in love, seeking in all things to know His divine will and to follow it. So, "Give … to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s."
|Emperor Tiberius was caesar during the time of Jesus.
As we ponder these words, though, we realize that more is being taught by Jesus, for the simple reason that even the "emperor" belongs to God. Even the "emperor" is called to God's service. This is the message of Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah (45:1, 4-6). To free His people from bondage in exile, God made use of the earthly power of the foreign emperor Cyrus, though Cyrus knew it not. What Scripture is teaching us here is that, although earthly and heavenly citizenry might be distinct, nevertheless they are not entirely separate. Because all things belong to God, the two spheres interpenetrate. As we fulfill our duties as citizens of a country, we cannot separate out from consideration our obligations to Almighty God. Among those duties to God is the obligation to announce the Gospel. Jesus has sent us on mission to speak the truth of God's love and of God's plan to save the world in him.
Yet speaking the truth about God is not always welcomed with unbridled enthusiasm. Consider the setting of Jesus's famous saying. “Give … to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is his answer to a question that was posed to him as a very clever trap by the Pharisees and the Herodians. Together those two groups represented the religious and political establishment of the day. They were not at all happy with the challenge that Jesus issued to them by speaking the truth about God, and sought to discredit him before the people and the Roman authorities. By his answer, our Lord not only avoided their trap but also revealed the malice and duplicity behind their tactics. These people sought to destroy him, and their efforts eventually brought him to the cross.
Echoes of this encounter between Jesus and his foes have reverberated throughout history in attacks against his Body, the Church. It continues in our own day. Our society's allergy to the Gospel is manifest in attempts to discredit the Church as out of touch or behind the times, or to marginalize people of faith.
Yet, how can we do otherwise than to give faithful witness? How can we do otherwise than to give to God the gift of our worship and to "the emperor" the gift of the Gospel? All around us is evidence of a crisis of hope besetting humanity. We know it need not be this way. There is a reason for real hope: the sure love of God, made manifest and active in Jesus Christ. This conviction impels us, as it impelled St. Paul (cf. 1Thessalonians 1:1-5), to announce the Gospel with confidence and joy, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. That power we must not forget. Just think: the earthly powers that raged against the Church throughout her long history, where are they now? Vanished. The Church continues. Jesus was led to the Cross, yes, but he rose from the dead! As Risen Lord he remains with the Church, bestowing upon her the gift of the Holy Spirit and investing the preaching and witness of his disciples with the Spirit’s power.
As followers of Jesus Christ, as people with both heavenly and earthly citizenry, we owe to God our fidelity, and to our brothers and sisters nothing less than the truth of Jesus Christ.