Homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Psalm 95 (96): 1, 3-5, 7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
18 October 2020
In recent weeks, we’ve heard the series of parables about the Kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel. They’ve been mainly directed at the chief priests and the elders. And they’ve had a gutful. So now, we move to a series of conflict stories between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees who have decided that it is time to move against him. They try various means to trap him, so that he will fall out either with the Roman authorities or with the mob. As you’d expect, Jesus is too deft to be caught out. He does not tone down his attack. He labels them hypocrites. Once the last of the conflict stories is told, Jesus unleashes a barrage of criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees, labelling them as hypocrites and blind guides. He then rounds out his critique describing them as serpents and a brood of vipers.
In today’s conflict, the Pharisees start with a charm offensive: “Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in an honest way and that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you.” Jesus smells a rat immediately. He is aware of their malice. They ask if it is permissible to pay the poll tax to the Roman authorities. If he answers yes, he will alienate the mob. If he answers no, he will alienate the authorities.
He names the set-up for what it is: “Why do you set this trap for me?” He asks to see the coin with which they pay the tax. They produce the coin with the image and inscription of Caesar on it. The scripture scholar Daniel Harrington tells us: “In Jesus’ day the most widely circulated denarius bore the image of the emperor Tiberius and the Latin inscription Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus (‘Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest’). Tiberius reigned as Roman emperor between a.d. 14 and 37.” Some scripture scholars tell us that Jesus cleverly highlights the hypocrisy of the Pharisees from the beginning of the encounter as they are the ones who secretly possess the coin with the image and inscription of Caesar, thereby demonstrating their allegiance to Caesar while publicly trying to keep in with the crowd.
Jesus tells the Pharisees, accompanied by the Herodians who pledged allegiance to Herod and the Roman occupiers, “Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” i.e. those things bearing the image and inscription of God. But what are those things, and how is it to be done?
Daniel Harrington warns us: “Throughout Christian history, there has been a tendency to use this text as the basis for a doctrine of ‘Church and state,’ often with the conclusion that they are separate spheres and sometimes with the consequence that obedience to the state in its sphere is practically absolute. But this text and others like it (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–17; and Matt 17:24–27) should not be pressed into a metaphysics or a political philosophy.” 
No doubt Harrington’s warning has a point for scriptural purists. But it has not deterred bodies like the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences which conducted a colloquium on Catholic Social Doctrine and Human Rights in 2009. The editors of their deliberations reported:
From the dualism brought by Christianity (‘Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s’), sprung not only the freedom of the Church but also a right that the collective consciousness perceived much later – the right to religious freedom.
This has a triple dimension – the individual, the collective and the institutional. It is not…only the right of the person to believe in his innermost self in the truth of his own faith. It is also, and above all else, the right to express, profess and practice his own religion, to live it in an individual form and through association. And the right to freedom of the relationship with God postulates the right to the freedom of the Church as an institution, which represents the interests of the faithful before ‘Caesar’. The ultimate foundation of these claims is the defence of the dignity of the person, which is intimately bound up with his freedom in every choice and above all in choices in harmony with his own religious belief. 
These issues have been swirling around this past week with the hearings in the US Judiciary Committee for the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Amidst the controversy between Democrats and Republicans, between progressives and conservatives, between judicial activists and originalists (none of which is our focus), there has been a fascinating controversy about Judge Barrett’s religious beliefs, how she renders to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
When she delivered the 2006 Commencement Speech to graduating lawyers at her alma mater, the University Notre Dame, she said:
There are certainly many respects in which you will not be any different from your peers who have graduated from other law schools. To begin with, being a different kind of a lawyer does not mean that you have mastered a different body of law. There is no Catholic version of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
No problem there. But secular atheists and progressive Democrat judicial activists were worried when 14 years later they read these words:
[Y]ou will always keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and … that end is building the kingdom of God. You know the same law, are charged with maintaining the same ethical standards, and will be entering the same kinds of legal jobs as your peers across the country. But if you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer. 
During her 2017 confirmation hearing for her first judicial appointment, Judge Barrett said she ‘vehemently’ believed that if there be a conflict between the judge’s personal conviction and the judge’s duty under rule of law, it would never be permissible for the judge to follow her “personal convictions in the decision of a case rather than what the law requires.”
Back then she told the Judiciary Committee: “I would decide cases according to the rule of law, beginning to end, and in the rare circumstance that might ever arise …where I felt that I had some conscientious objection to the law, I would recuse.” She was adamant that she “would never impose (her) own personal convictions upon the law.”
This week, she told the Judiciary committee: “Judges cannot just wake up one day and say, ‘I have an agenda — I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion,’ and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world.” With stark simplicity she declared, “It’s not the law of Amy. It’s the law of the American people.”
Even those of us who are not judges have civic responsibilities, if only the responsibilities of everyday citizens. Discharging those responsibilities, we render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But doing so, we are committed to building the Kingdom of God here and now, thereby rendering to God what is God’s. The most pedestrian of activities, the most routine of activities, and the most secular of activities can be performed faithfully and well by the person of faith who is committed to the breaking in of God’s kingdom here and now.
Scripture scholar Charles Giblin reminds us, “Jesus’ answer is not a pat refutation or a skilful evasion of a political difficulty, nor is it presented as a theology of the State; it is a challenge to penetrating understanding of a genuinely theological cast, a challenge that looks to man’s discerning his relationship to God in moral conduct.” 
Yesterday, we marked the 10th anniversary of the canonisation of Mary MacKillop. At the recent state funeral for NSW ex-Premier John Fahey, Archbishop Fisher recalled: “Amidst the hurly-burly of politics, John had a calm about him explained by the Rosary beads always in his hand or pocket and now on his coffin beside his treasured cross made of wood from Mary MacKillop’s first school.” Carrying those beads and treasuring that cross did not make John Fahey any the less faithful in rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. I dare to claim it may have helped him to so render, constantly and faithfully, transparently, with integrity and not a tinge of corruption. How? By first and foremost rendering to God what is God’s. It can be done even when we’re surrounded by serpents and a brood of vipers.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
 Ibid, p. 311
 The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Acta 15, Catholic Social Doctrine and Human Rights, The Proceedings of the 15th Plenary Session, 1-5 May 2009, Casina Pio IV, p. 28
 Barrett, Amy Coney, “Associate Professor Amy Coney Barrett, Diploma Ceremony Address” (2006). Commencement Programs. Paper 13 at http://scholarship.law.nd.edu/commencement_programs/13
 Giblin, C. H. “ ‘The Things of God’ in the Question Concerning Tribute to Caesar (Lk 20:25; Mk 12:17; Mt 22:21).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 33 (1971) 510–27 at pp. 52-7.