29th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

In the last couple of years I have seen a healthy uptick in the number of people coming for the Sacrament of Reconciliation here. I do not think we are sinning more, I prefer to think that we are being forgiven more.  Many people use the Ten Commandments as a starting point in their examination of conscience, so without breaking the seal, I thought I would give you an overview of what is being shared.

We are really trying to keep the Sabbath. Good news, we are speaking the name of the Lord.  Bad news:  too often we take it in vain.  Many people mention the failure to honor their mother and father and it is not just kids.  There is a fair amount of lying and a little stealing.  There have been no murders for which I am grateful but in that subset of fighting I have to report that among our ten year old and younger crowd there is an epidemic of sibling on sibling violence.  Please just try to get along; it makes everyone happier.

But I rarely hear confessed that someone has violated the first commandment. “I am your God and you shall have no other gods besides me.  Idolatry does not appear to be a concern.  But I wonder if we truly excel at keeping this commandment.  When do we put other gods before our God?

The famous controversy story of whether to pay taxes to the Emperor brings this to mind. The Pharisees pose this question not to provide illumination but simply to trip him up in speech.  If he says that taxes should not be paid, then he will be in trouble with the Roman authorities.  If he says that taxes should be paid to support the occupying Roman army, then he will lose the support of the people.  Jesus asks the Pharisees whose image is on the coin and when they reply Caesar, he cleverly retorts, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  The would-be triumphant Pharisees slink away.

But I believe there is more than just a clever wiggling out of a difficult situation. The emperor is not just a political leader.  It is not just like having a President on a dollar bill. By this time, the Roman Emperor had claimed divine status.  And here are all the Pharisees carrying around an image of a false god with them, a horrible violation of the rules they cherish.  How often do we pay our taxes to false gods?

We pay off the false gods every time we confuse the ultimate with what is not ultimate. Only the eternal and those things that lead us to it should be given our true devotion.  However, what is ultimate, God, love, relationships and sacrifice are not ever present and gets lost in the background.  In the meantime, the day to day stuff of our lives confronts us constantly; taking up our time and energy.

In the midst of this political season we are given this story that is so often linked with Church and State. But there is not truly a balance represented in this story.  Let me tell you that no matter who wins in November, their program will not answer all our problems and there is no politician who will save us.  Only the kingdom of God fills all our needs and only God can save us.  But that is forgotten in the middle of all these high stakes campaigns.   I wish the kingdom of God could get more play.  It would be refreshing to hear on a commercial, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.  This is the law and the prophets.   My name is Jesus Christ and I approved this message.”

The Pharisees’ attempt to trap Jesus are among the forces that press down on us to confuse the immediate with the ultimate. He either must cooperate with authority from above or lose his standing in the community.  Both cooperation with civil authority and popularity have an important place.  I appreciate the fact that our governing bodies allow us to resolve conflicts peacefully and work together.  In my life I can see the value of popularity.  After all, who ever said, you should go to a particular church because everyone hates the priest.   But gifts like governmental authority and popularity should be only tools to serve the greater good, only ways to promote the kingdom of God.   If they were ultimate ends, then Martin Luther King Jr. would be a heretic and not a hero.  If popularity is the primary goal of the minister, then the Gospel serves the minister rather than the minister serving the Gospel.

How do we see our need to be successful and be known as a success move us? Is what drives us always in service of others?  There are indicators that can enlighten us.  If our success is self-serving our value will be the approval of others and our victories empty as they are divorced from the great and healing love of God.  If our success is God serving, others will be lifted and our dignity will be discovered in how we know and love our God.

This week we lost a few wonderful women in our parish. They were very different personalities but they were united in that their devotion to God made their destinies tied up with the ultimate.  Their lives were a reflection of love, mercy, grace, friendship, hope and faith.  They knew peace because they knew Christ and were anxious to be received in to his arms.  Their example moves me to put away the insignificant, to avoid the charade of the immediate and pressing as all-consuming and to live for the ultimate.   Why pay our taxes to a false God when our salvation has been paid for by the cross?  We are not about creating glory as much as recognizing the glory within us. For when we are about the ultimate, the kingdom comes and heaven is ours.