29 Sunday Homily
A while back five cardinals submitted questions (dubia) to the Holy Father, questions to which they wanted ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Pope Francis did not respond with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but with a pastoral response grounded in the church’s tradition. His response did not shut down; it opened up and invited further reflection; he wrote in answer to one question: ‘In our relationships with people, we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defence of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity; it also includes kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.’ Human life is complex and very few things are black and white. God works with us patiently in our messiness and the church should learn from the patient work of God.
In today’s Gospel, some Pharisees and Herodians come together to try to trap Jesus. That the two groups collaborate is extraordinary because each detests the other. The Pharisees seek to be a holy people partly by avoiding contact with the unclean, the unclean definitely includes the pagan Romans. The Herodians, on the other hand, collaborate with the Romans for power. They are united, however, in their hatred of Jesus. They see him in different ways as a threat to their world and so they come up with their ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. If he says ‘no’ the Herodians can go to their Roman friends and accuse him of sedition. If he says ‘yes’ the Pharisees can spread the word that he supports the Roman occupiers. A neat trap.
The way they introduce the question would make anyone’s antennae twitch: ‘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’. Whatever follows that preamble is going to sting.
The Lord sees the malice which moves them. I wonder how he felt at his being so hated, he who hates no one. Jesus doesn’t have Roman coin himself and so asks them, ‘Let me see the money you pay the tax with.’ They produce a denarius and so implicate themselves. He isn’t part of the system, but they are. They use the coin of the conquerors. He tells them that since they use the coinage, they are part of the system and so should fulfil their obligations in that system. That was a clever answer; it avoided the trap. But Jesus does not stop there, he adds ‘And give to God what belongs to God.’ They did not mention God in their question, but he reminds them of the obligation which lies at the heart of everything. God is Creator and the Saviour of Israel. Everything belongs to him. No series of laws or prohibitions can capture that obligation. It asks them to love God and to love their neighbour in every aspect of their life.
It asks us to love God and our neighbour in every decision we make. We are called to speak this truth to our own caesars – to those in power in this world. The Catholic tradition of social justice tells us that love has a political dimension – it challenges the way our society treats the poor, the vulnerable, the environment.
To love God is to love my neighbour. Who is my neighbour? Pope Benedict XVI summed it up, ‘Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour.’ And how do I love my neighbour? This brings us back to Pope Francis’ answer which I quoted at the beginning. There is no series of laws or rules which can tell us how to love God and our neighbour. The laws guide us, they help us reflect on issues, but love is greater and demands more. Pope Francis wrote to the cardinals that ‘sometimes we find it hard to make room for the unconditional love of God’ in pastoral care (Amoris laetitia, 311), but we must learn to do so’. All of us must learn over time and in the challenging situations and relationships of our life to make room for the unconditional love of God – and so we learn to give to God what belongs to God.