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WHOSE LAW MATTERS MOST?
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Reprinted in the Albany Times-Union on October 31, 2020
These days leading up to the General Election are fraught with emotion and challenges. The issue is whether to vote with an informed conscience or simply according to party lines. For those who trust in the providence of a higher being the big quandary is: How does God fit into all of this?
We can find some guidance starting with the familiar line from today’s gospel: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God. This axiom is not only about paying taxes according to the laws. It provides us with a chance to examine critically what civic and religious laws matter most in our lives.
The social context for this gospel passage and the words of Jesus are relevant. Religion scholar, Sarah Rollens wrote: “the backdrop of the Jesus movement was persistent ... conflicts stemming from the inherent social and economic inequality that characterized the Roman Empire as a whole [at that time] ....”
In this socio-political-religious environment of Jesus’s life different factions competed for power. The Pharisees and the Herodians featured in today’s gospel opposed one another but despised Jesus and his preaching. They teamed up to dishonor him with a tricky legal question about paying taxes. (In next week’s gospel the Pharisees will ask Jesus about which is the greatest commandment.)
With regard to today’s gospel, scholar John Pilch noted: “If Jesus said it was not lawful to pay the tax, he would anger the Roman officials. If he said it was in accord with Torah, he would offend the ardent nationalists who hated everything about the Romans.” There was not much wiggle room for compromise. Jesus’s concise and clever reply about which law applies in a certain situation requires a contemporary application.
Some laws in the United States benefit some but not all persons. States have conflicting laws. Not every individual agrees with every law. The same conundrum exists in many religions where, sometimes, laws are thought to be irrelevant. Varied responses to laws can cause confusion for all of us. When people disregard civic and religious laws or interpret them for personal gain or privilege they disregard the common good. The result is that people who are more vulnerable and live on the margins of society are harmed. That is why Jesus’s answer to his opponents is notable now as it was then.
In his new encyclical “Sisters and Brothers All” (Fratelli Tutti) Pope Francis strongly urges us to “rediscover our vocation as citizens of our respective nations and of the entire world, builders of a new social bond.” (66) In this most important and timely papal letter Francis continues: “... political charity is born of a social awareness that transcends every individualistic mindset: ‘Social charity makes us love the common good’, it makes us effectively seek the good of all people, considered not only as individuals or private persons, but also in the social dimension that unites them’.” (182)
One spirited campaign issue that has polarized this nation and most religious institutions focuses on the meaning of the term “pro-life.” Does this expression mean “pro-God?” Does it mean “pro-one-politician-over-another?” How does someone vote in the upcoming election when one right to life issue is touted as more important or pre- eminent than other right to life concerns? Coxing voters to ignore other crucial issues affecting human life and planet life is not helpful in the long run.
When moral issues are politicized their values are diminished. What law can we follow to help achieve the common good? The U.S. Catholic bishops teach that we should abide by a well-informed conscience grounded in Catholic social doctrine. In this context Bishop Robert W. McElroy wrote that to vote only on one “preeminent issue in a particular political season is to reduce the common good, in effect, to one issue ... when there are [actually] several preeminent issues.”
So we can ask: How can someone be pro-life but support the military industrial complex, the imprisonment of immigrant children at our borders, capital punishment, and discrimination against minorities? How can someone be pro-life and oppose universal health care, supplemental nutrition programs, regulations to protect the environment, and equitable tax laws. All of these issues are of preeminent concern to the human family.
We realize no law is perfect. No law will serve every dictum of every religious persuasion. Jesus of Nazareth died while working to achieve a “common good.” We Christians can act with members of other faith traditions to discern whose law guides human behavior at any one time. Our ultimate goal is to preserve God’s vision of peace, equity, and harmony for all human beings, our animal friends, and the planet at large. As Pope Francis urges, we are called to act in a way that protects all of these cherished gifts.