Isaiah 45:1-6; Matthew 22:15-21
I was walking on campus one morning not long ago, the sun just breaking through the fog, and I saw a young woman in a wheelchair paused at the curb. She had dropped a water bottle in the street and couldn’t reach down to pick it up. I think she had cerebral palsy.
And just then a young man with a beard rode by on a bike, clearly in a hurry. But he stopped, got off, bent over and picked up the bottle, and handed it to the woman.
They exchanged a few words—she must have been thanking him—and then he jumped back on the bike and rode away.
It was a moment like many moments in our lives, a moment of beauty and a moment of grace, a moment of the presence of Christ.
It was also a moment of compassion, of unexpected kindness, and in that way it can help us think about this really difficult issue that Jesus raises in the gospel today, of what it means to render unto to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Since the election last fall I’ve had so many difficult conversations about politics and religion—anguished conversations, sometimes angry conversations–and with people I love and respect, from all over the spectrum, people who want to follow the Gospel and do what is right. The Popes have all struggled with these questions–St. John Paul, Pope Benedict, and now Pope Francis. The bishops have struggled with this. We all have, I think—I have, and I still am.
What I think is so helpful in this famous gospel passage is how radically nonspecific Jesus is. The sentences are clear and balanced: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” But as in the parables, this apparently straightforward language is really open-ended when you stop to think about it. Really provocative. What exactly belongs to Caesar? Jesus doesn’t say. What exactly belongs to God? Jesus doesn’t say. What Jesus does in the gospels is give us fundamental moral principles—to love God and to love our neighbor—to be compassionate, to be kind—and then again and again calls us to think for ourselves about what this means in our own lives.
This is the main idea, too, in a very important document put out by the American Catholic bishops several years ago and again, in an updated form, in 2015, before the election, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: a Call to Political Responsibility.” I really urge you to read this—I’m surprised by how many people haven’t. Just google “Faithful Citizenship” and you’ll find it, or ask me for the link. Because I think it can really help us, all of us, and not because it tells us how to vote, but because it doesn’t–because it gives us, very clearly, the basic principles of Catholic moral teaching—to respect all life, to help the poor and the vulnerable, to take care of the environment—and says that when we vote and when we participate in the political discussion, we have to act in accord with these basic principles, all of them, in relation to each other.
We have to stop. We have to get off our bikes.
But what exactly that means when it comes to particular policies and particular issues, that’s for us to decide ourselves. “The Church is involved in the political process but is not partisan,” the bishops say, writing as a body, exercising their teaching authority as leaders of the American church. “The Church cannot champion any candidate or party. Our cause is the defense of human life and dignity and the protection of the weak and vulnerable.”
Not all of Catholic moral teaching lines up with a single party. Some of it lines up with one party, some of it with another. And so we have to weigh things, we have to make choices, and we can. It’s OK. “Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems,” the bishops say.
What matters is what they call intent. If we vote for a candidate because that candidate favors abortion, or assisted suicide, or unfair treatment of workers and immigrants, or any other “intrinsically evil act,” then we are sinning. But there may be times, the bishops say, when “a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.”
In other words, we really have to think about this, all of us, Republicans and Democrats and Independents. How do we balance the competing claims of the Gospel?
This, I think, is what it means to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s: not to get them mixed up—not to confuse the political with the religious.
This is what it means to be faithful citizens: to resist all the forces that war against the dignity of the person, what John Paul called all the “structures of sin,” abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, racism and poverty and environmental degradation. These are not, the bishops say, “optional concerns which can be dismissed.” They are all important, and they are all related, and though we can differ on how exactly to fight them, “we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world . . . so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity defended.”
We have to get off our bikes.
Pope Benedict talked about how the love we experience in the Eucharist should shape all our thoughts and actions, including those in the political realm. He called for “Eucharistic consistency” on the part of all of us.
“It would be a serious mistake,” the Bishops say in their document on “Faithful Citizenship,” “to use only selected parts of the Church’s teaching to advance partisan political interests or validate ideological biases. All of us are called to be servants to the whole truth in authentic love.”
Whatever our politics, however we think the problems are best solved, we have to get off our bikes. Pick up the bottles.
Or I was walking near campus on another morning not long ago—a rainy morning—pouring down rain. And a boy in trucker’s cap, in a Chevy Blazer, on big monster wheels, came roaring through this enormous puddle on the other side of the street, parting it like the Red Sea.
And there was a woman walking on the sidewalk there, at just that point, and the wave on that side rose up, over her head, and came crashing down, soaking her completely.
And I thought: isn’t that just typical?
But then the boy in the blazer slammed on his brakes, leaned over, rolled down the window, and shouted above the roar of his engine, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were there!
And the woman just laughed. She was wearing rain gear, from top to bottom, and she was laughing, and the water was streaming off her. She was shining.
I know so many people in this parish who are like the boy in the Blazer, like the boy on the bike, people who stop and help and do what needs to be done, and some of them are Republicans, and some of them are Democrats, and some of them are Independents, and they are all doing God’s work. They are all, as the bishops say, “first and foremost citizens of heaven,” and God is their sovereign, not any Caesar, and they see Christ himself shining in their lives and especially in the people who get soaked by the wave or who can’t reach for what they need, they are all doing God’s work, as best they can, and these are our models, these are the people who are rendering unto God, and this is what we all need to do: to render unto God what is God’s, and that’s everything. Everything.
I am the Lord! There is no other!