29th Sunday of the Year A

This is the time of the year when the Revenue Commissioners are reminding us to file our tax returns. Yes, priests pay taxes, and are considered self-employed. We all have a moral obligation to pay our taxes, as much as we grumble.

In today’s Gospel as Jesus confrontation with the Jews become more dramatic and more frequent, Jesus reminds us to ‘render unto Caesar, what is Caesar’s’ after all.
Some among the Jews who on the one hand greatly resented Roman occupation being supported by taxes, and the Herodians on the other, supporters of the detested royal family and the occupying Roman force, united in an attempt to trap Jesus into civil disobedience. In a seemingly no-win situation, if answered incorrectly and to their satisfaction, Jesus’ response would give ammunition, as it were, to one party of His enemies which would later be possible to use his answer as evidence against Him in trial. They already had their minds made up to incarcerate him and have him put to death.

Jesus takes a Roman coin and holds it up them:
‘Render unto God what is God’s’. What does this mean? It means while we have duties as citizens, we have duties as Christians too to give God true worship. Justice means that all give to one another mutually what is their due. In an ideal just society there would be no clash of obligations.

But ‘rendering unto Caesar’ in civic society means that we must discern and ascertain which are the just, binding laws and demands of the state, from laws that are unjust and non-binding in conscience. Because something is legally possible, does not render it morally permissible.

The disciples in the early Church recognised legitimate civil authority: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities...he who resists the authorities resist what God has appointed (Romans 13:1-2)

But at the same time they were not afraid to speak out against public authority when it opposed God’s holy will: We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29)
There have been times throughout history when Catholics and other Christians have been forced to make difficult choices. For early Christians it was a stark choice to either submit to the worship false gods or face a painful savage death, for Irish Catholics it was either fidelity to the Holy Mass, or a heavy fine or prison, and in some cases too, even death. The Church in nearly every country has many martyrs for the faith. We have 17 recognised Blessed Irish Martyrs, of at least 120.
What about us? Where there is a conflict between divine law and State law, there is a difficult and sometimes painful necessary choice to be made, it is a seeming question of loyalty. There are times, as Christians, when we must stand for something, and oppose social injustice - to summarise Chesterton, or fall for anything. For evil to prosper, all it takes is for good people to do nothing.

• We recognise for example the enduring indissolubility of marriage in the eyes of God, even if divorce and re-marriage is permitted in the eyes of the State;
• We recognise and must defend the traditional Christian understanding that marriage, by definition involves a man and a woman;
• and that the dignity and right to life of every human being from conception, to the embryonic stage, and right through all stages of pregnancy, And then on to natural death must be upheld.

While legal definitions alone do not determine the moral rightness and wrongness of human acts, we as citizens have the duty to promote the common good, to support and enshrine just laws and decry unjust ones.

We are called therefore to be loyal citizens of the State, but also to be Christians loyal to the prior and higher demands of the laws of God.

One of the most famous moral dilemmas was the one that faced St Thomas More, so marvellously portrayed in the movie ‘a man for all seasons’. Thomas’ choice was to take the oath recognising Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church of England, and recognise his marriage to Anne Boleyn; or to stick to his Catholic principles recognising the Pope’s authority to refuse the annulment, as well as defending the sanctity of marriage, testifying to the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Arag√≥n. Let it be said of us too that we always gave priority to render unto God what is God’s, and that we always preferred to do what is right ahead of what is popular.

St Thomas More was declared by Blessed Pope John Paul II as the patron saint of politicians. He was a prisoner of and martyr for all who uphold the dignity of conscience. He is really patron to us all who sometimes have ethical dilemmas, and are uncertain of what decision to take. Let us pray to him and try to take to heart
his words.

Thomas’ famous last words can be our catch-cry as well: ‘I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first’.

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