The closest I ever was to being “truant” or intentionally “tardy” for school was with my two older brothers. I was in 7th Grade, My brother Craig was in 10th, and my oldest brother Chris was a senior in High School. It was a February morning, the day after a snowstorm had kept us home from school, and it was a Wednesday. I remembered all those details because it wasn’t just any Wednesday – it was Ash Wednesday. After my brothers had explained how they couldn’t go to the 3:30 service or the 7 PM Mass, my mother had looked at the Church Bulletin and noticed that there was a 8:00 Mass in the morning. She raced us out the door at 7:45 so we could get to St. Agnes in time for the 8:00 Mass (the Church wasn’t even a 5-minute car ride from our home), And she gave us each a note for being late. In her mind, it wasn’t a big deal. Since Home Room was 8:20, she thought we would only be a few minutes late – maybe miss a few minutes of the first period since she told us to leave Mass after communion – something we should never do by the way. So she imagined we’d be in school by 8:30 – 8:40 at the latest.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 22, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
It’s amazing how quickly, with my oldest brother driving and the three of us not in any hurry to get to school, other options came to mind. Truth be told, and not to make my brothers look bad, they weren’t interested in attending Mass at all. So when my brother decided to take the long route to St. Agnes (actually going out of his way and driving past his high school and my middle school), I wasn’t shocked. And with the streets still in bad condition with lots of ice and snow, the longer route took longer than usual. So we were already late for 8:00 Mass. Just trying to be helpful, I offered that there was also a 9:00 Mass that we could attend. In fact, that was the school Mass, with Music and everything – so we could be sure that it might even go to 9:45 AM, maybe even 10:00 if we lit a candle and said a prayer at one of the shrines (which we did until one older parishioner came over and said “don’t you guys think you better be heading to school?”). We easily missed the first two periods of the day (I was hoping to miss part of the third period, which was my Math class). We told ourselves we were good Catholics – we had to get to Mass for Ash Wednesday, right? And we completely got away with it. Ashened headed with notes from Mom, there were no questions asked when I got to school (I skipped going along with my brothers, who decided they had to go to the Diner after Mass, even though Chris made a compelling argument that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, of course, forgetting that since it was Ash Wednesday, we were supposed to fast, but, I digress)
In the grand scheme of things, I know it’s not the most earth-shattering act of disobedience that one could commit. Sadly, I can give countless examples that were even worse than my brothers and I did. But there’s something about this one that always bothered me – still bothers me to this day. I regret being dishonest to my parents, teachers, and all. But what makes this stand out is that simply so we could be late for school – we used God.
The idea of “using God” isn’t something the Chern boys invented. Not by a long shot. We see that is at play in this Gospel. These two groups identified here – the Herodians and the Pharisees – both hated each other. They were both Jewish groups – but had opposing viewpoints on their relationship with the Roman Empire and government authorities. Sadly, they hated Jesus more. So it was an “enemy of my enemy becomes my friend” scenario, and they united. The pivotal question in this encounter, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” was designed to stir up opposition against Jesus. If Jesus said NO, Roman officials could move in against this radical revolutionary who threatened their civil authority. If Jesus said YES, then they could argue he was siding with the Romans, the very people who had taken over their land. Even more, if Jesus supported the idea of taxes, state, and Roman authority – that was seen as violating the commandment to love, to serve, and to obey God alone, which would infuriate the more devout Jews. So Jesus’ opponents are thinking they’re pretty clever. They are both using God in their own distinctive ways to align with their own viewpoints, their own calculations of how things should play out, and even worse, as a means of trying to eliminate Jesus, the Son of God. They saw Jesus as a threat to maintaining their positions of power and influence. And so if they could eliminate him, they figure, then get back to hating each other and fighting to see who rated higher in those areas.
Interestingly, if we dig at this a bit deeper and sit with it a bit more, we realize that Jesus isn’t simply delivering a clever dig at his opponents. He does do that, for sure; Jesus is great at multi-tasking. But in the process, Jesus tries to move them from asking about loopholes, responsibilities, and obligations and says – well, since you brought the question of God up, What do we owe God? How does being a member of the Kingdom of God affect all aspects of our lives?
Because the thing is, in asking the question about whether to pay the tax to Caesar or not, one of the things that the opponents of Jesus didn’t think about was, in choosing to have the coins with Caesar on them, they had already aligned themselves as a part of the empire. They were utilizing the form of currency of their oppressors. So even though they complained about being “occupied,” they groaned how this was an obstacle to their freedom to live fully according to God’s covenant; what they revealed by producing that coin was they had already compromised their identity as God’s people by buying into the Roman economy.
What do we owe God? That was lost on the part of the Herodians, who were cozying up to the political leaders of their day in trying to position themselves as Jews in the context of being members of a ruling class in the Roman empire. That was lost on the part of the Pharisees, who had, in effect, made an idol of their study of scripture that they’re blind and deaf to God incarnate, as they continue to argue and scheme against Jesus Christ.
What we owe God is undivided minds and hearts that put Him first, where our lives are seen as being dedicated to Him and glorifying Him in everything. Because it’s not about fulfilling obligations as a checklist, but it’s a relationship based on love. Which when love is genuine and sincere, it is all-consuming. A few weeks ago, I heard this story about a Protestant Pastor and his wife, who had been married for over 30 years. As he reflected on the ups and downs, challenges, and blessings of their life together, he had this interesting observation. He said that if before they were married, his wife had said, ‘I love you, I want to marry you, I want to spend the rest of my life with you… but my high school boyfriend, Matt, would you be okay with if I just had one weekend a year with him? The rest of my time, the rest of every year, the rest of my life, is yours…I give you all the rest of that. By percentage, by calculations 99.5% of the year, I’m totally yours.’ The Pastor said, “I love my wife, but had if she came to me with that, I would have said, I don’t think that’s a good deal. Because if I love her, I want all of her. If she loves me, she wants all of me. Not just the good days, not the days we plan for. But the difficult ones, when the unexpected happens. Love changes, love demands, love impacts everything.
Both the Old and New Testaments talk about the need for us to be detached from the things, the structures, and the institutions of this world, recognizing where our true citizenship lies. That we are to live as members of the Kingdom of God. Jesus points out in His clever response to their questioning that if we choose to engage the things of this world – we’re free to do so – then we have obligations and responsibilities to them. We can’t then try to turn it around and claim that with God the Father as our true King, we don’t have to fulfill these earthly obligations that we’ve entered into. And that doesn’t exclude us from our ultimate responsibilities to God. The Ten Commandments don’t come second to The Constitution. The call to “tithe” our time, talent, and treasure to God doesn’t disappear because our expenses (or our desires for things) cost more.
God must always come first. Jesus tells us to “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” – this is a nicer way of saying we need to stop using God as an out when it’s convenient and recognize God first loved us and desires our undivided hearts in return.