Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrin
29th Sunday of Ordinary Time: God and Caesar
They tried to trap Jesus. "Is it lawful to pay tax to the Romans or not?" If he said "yes," they could have declared him a traitor and a Roman sympathizer. He would be a Jew telling people to support their oppressors. If he said "No," then they would have run to the Romans telling them that he was preaching sedition.
Jesus settled the question with a simple, but profound answer: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God's." This passage leads us to consider how we carry out our responsibilities to our country and to our God.
We are Catholic Christians. We are Americans. We take our citizenship in our country extremely seriously. We begin our school days with the Pledge of Allegiance. Every sporting event, in fact, all major gatherings of Americans, begin with the National Anthem. Perhaps, some of you are considering a life in the Armed Services. Our country needs men and women like you to defend it here and in foreign lands. If you were to join the services, you would be putting your lives in danger for the sake of the rest of us. That is patriotic. That is noble.
Patriotism is a virtue. We support and pray for the men and women in the service. We would not have our country as we know it were it not for them and those who fought and died for it in the past.
We are also citizens of the Kingdom of God. Our responsibility to God is infinitely greater than our responsibility to our country. Will we ever be forced to choose between country and God? Hopefully, no, but for us there is no choice. The bottom line is that we are Christians first and forever.
I want to tell you about two men, one a saint and the other a contemporary king. Both were confronted with having to choose between their country and their faith. The saint is St Thomas More. Thomas More was a friend of King Henry VIII of England. Thomas was a brilliant lawyer and a man of deep faith. The king had a deep respect for Thomas. He named him to be the country's Chancellor. Thomas served the King well. He joined the king on opposing the attacks on the Church made by Martin Luther. Henry VIII wrote an essay supporting the Church that was probably ghost written by Thomas. To this day, the Monarchs of England retain the title "Defender of the Faith" that was given to them by the Pope in gratitude for Henry's support.
Then the whole problem of Henry's marriage came up. When the Henry’s request for an annulment was denied, Henry declared himself to be head of the Church. All in England were then required to sign the oath of supremacy rejecting the authority of Rome in religious matters. Thomas would not. For this he was first stripped of his position as chancellor, then he was imprisoned and finally he was beheaded. Thomas' last words were: “I die as the King's faithful servant, but God's first.” Given the choice between following his conscience or rejecting the truth, Thomas saw no choice. Given the choice of choosing king or God, he chose God.
The second person I want to point out to you is a former king of Belgium, King Baudouin. He reigned not that long ago, from 1951 to 1993. He was very much loved by all his people. Baudouin and his wife, Queen Fabiola, were fervent Catholics.
They supported many Catholic charities, the foremost being those that cared for mentally and physically challenged children. They were also patriotic. They loved Belgium and the people that they believed God gave them to govern. Then their country’s parliament passed a law allowing abortion, even in late term situations. But according to Belgium’s law, the law could not be enacted unless the King signed it. King Baudouin refused. He said that he was placed on the throne to care for the lives of his people. He would not destroy the lives of the most vulnerable. The King was forced to abdicate, which he did rather than sign. Actually, the parliament played a political game. They declared him incompetent, forced his abdication and then enacted the law on their own, something that was permitted between reigns in Belgium law. Then, a few days later, they reversed themselves and returned Baudouin to the throne. Baudouin became an example to his people and to the world of the importance of being first a member of the Kingdom of God.
One more person should be mentioned, although he is often misquoted. That is Stephen Decatur. Perhaps you have heard the quote from Stephen Decatur, "My country right or wrong, but my country". That is actually a misquote, or at least a quote taken out of context. Stephen Decatur was a naval commander at the dawn of our nation. He was sent to defend American merchant marine ships that had been attacked off of Africa. The soldiers on his ships who fought on shore were the first Marines, fighting on the shores of Tripoli. Decatur was questioned on why he would allow our country to get involved in foreign affairs. He said that he was merely following the orders sent to him. When he said, "My country right or wrong, but my country" Decatur was merely saying that It was his job to be a naval commander, not the Secretary of State. He was not saying that we should do immoral actions if ordered to do so by the country.
As citizens who care deeply for our country, we need to work hard to direct our country's paths to morality. We have a responsibility to support God and country. But we also believe that a priority must be kept: God first, country second. We need to do all in our power to help our country make good, moral laws so that we might always be "one nation under God."
There are many, many ways that we can guide our country to being one that serves God in its care for all our citizens. We have a responsibility to fight against laws that destroy life, from womb to tomb. We have a responsibility to change a system that allows the mentally challenged to be homeless. There are many other ways that we need to be active in helping our country make moral choices, support noble ideals.
We are reminded to today that we have to be active, courageous and moral citizens of this great nation. That is how we can Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.