29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By: Ninette D’Souza
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus wisely and cleverly evades the trap that his enemies have set for him. What might not be evident at first glance, without a little more context is the extreme and treacherous lengths that Jesus’ enemies have taken to entrap him. They certainly were not seeking Jesus’ honest opinion on whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar. Instead they were intent on seeing if Jesus would be able squirm out of the trap that they had set for him. It was highly unusual that the Pharisees and the Herodians were colluding together, because they were on totally opposite sides of the political spectrum. Jesus was faced with a seemingly no-win situation If Jesus had endorsed paying taxes to Rome and Caesar, the Pharisees would have regarded him as unfaithful to Judaism because he would be endorsing the fashioning of graven images, and he would be endorsing Rome’s continued occupation of their homeland, which the Pharisees sought to end. If Jesus has spoken against paying taxes to Rome, the Herodians could have charged Jesus with treason, because they supported the Herodian dynasty that ruled Palestine, who were in turn fully backed by the Roman Emperor. Jesus uses the coin, the denarius, to pull himself out of the tight corner his enemies had boxed him in but also raised an important question that is equally relevant for our own time: How do we balance the demands of the world with being faithful to the ways of God?
In our current time, I have noticed how the decisions made by political leaders have such far-reaching consequences on our society. This has become even more apparentas our world grapples with the COVID-19 crisis and our political leaders have to make decisions on how to deal with the multiple and complex challenges that have arisen. And all of us – whether we like to admit it or not – have been looking at what is going on in the United States, and we realize how political divisions can cause further divide society and greatly impact the political response to the societal problems.
Similar divisions are also at times evident in our Church. Periodically, I have been approached by various people in the Catholic community, who want to know whether I identify myself as a conservative Catholic or a liberal Catholic – hoping that they can pin me and my response on various moral issues. They hope I can be a champion of the “side” that they happen to espouse . At the same time, in my job as a Catholic High School teacher – I have students – and sometimes even colleagues – who seem to believe the Catholic Church teaching is out of step and thus irrelevant to what is going on in society. I have wondered how to respond to all of these reactions, and how I should apply the values of the Gospel to the challenges in today’s world.
When I’m trying to grapple with my approach to the moral issues in light of the Gospel I’m often reminded of the words that a wise and prayerful priest said in a homily at a mass I attended several years ago. He exhorted us to be careful not to be so caught up with ideology, that we forget to be faithful to God’s ways. I’ll repeat it again to be very clear: to be careful not to be so caught up with ideology that we forget to be faithful to God’s ways. So how then do we learn to be faithful to Gospel values in responding to the challenges and problems of society in a way that is prayerful, critical, loving and merciful, and independent of the trap of ideology?
I have discovered this by examining Church teaching on a variety of moral issues alongside my students that I teach in Grade 12 Religion classes at a Catholic high school. I have often insisted that students read Church teaching at its source: that is to read the actual text of various encyclical, or to read the actual text of Pope Francis’ addresses or speeches so they fully understand Church teaching, rather than simply reading what someone else reported about it. And over time, I have realized that sometimes we as Catholics base our understanding and interpretation of Church teaching on a certain issue based on what others say about it, rather than informing ourselves directly. In doing so, we can sometimes miss the fully nuanced, holistic and deeper understanding of Church teaching and Gospel values that we need in order to fully and adequately respond to the challenges in society. At times we might even be in danger of misinterpreting or misconstruing Church Teaching by relying on the pronouncements. For example, for the longest time, I thought that the encyclical, Laudato Si was only about the environment, but when I finally read the actual text, I was surprised that Pope Francis decried how the culture of relativism not only negatively impacted the care for creation and the environment but also the sexual exploitation of children, the abandonment of the elderly, the existence of human trafficking and of abortion, the reality of forced labour and the way the economy is run to the detriment of human persons.
We check our social media accounts on our phones constantly, yet do we take the same care to track and access the actual text of encyclicals and the homilies and addresses of Pope Francis and our bishops that are readily accessible on the Vatican website and other reliable sources? Do we take the time to read them and then prayerfully discern how we should respond to these issues in the real world? The Church examines and comments on a wide range of issues, yet our human tendency is to focus on only a few issues that are of interest to us. Perhaps we need to inform ourselves on the breath of Church Teaching on a continual basis through the ease of virtual access, so we critically and prayerfully examine the demands of the Gospel on many issues in the world – including ones we may otherwise have the tendency to overlook or ignore.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus holds up a denarius, the Roman coin, which has the face of the Roman Emperor engraved on it. In Jesus’ time, any object that had someone’s image on it, was considered to be the property belonging to that person whose very image was embedded Ultimately it was supposed to be returned to that person. Jesus was consistent with this line of reasoning, saying that the coin – and by extension one’s due in taxes – ultimately belonged to Caesar and his empire, whose very head was engraved on the coin.
Similarly, each and every one of us are created in God’s own image and likeness as stated in the first book of Genesis (Genesis 1:27). Just like Caesar’s coins, we need to repay ourselves to God, by recognizing God as our Creator and all the gifts he has bestowed on us, and remain faithful to all of God’s ways. Perhaps our first step is using our intellect and ability to learn about the breath of Church teaching in light of the Gospels with God’s help through the ease of virtual access, and then to prayerfully and critically apply them to all of aspects of life in the real world – including those issues we may otherwise be inclined to overlook or to ignore. Let us pray in thanksgiving for all the gifts God has bestowed on us. And let us ask for God’s wisdom so we can seek and learn all aspects of Church teaching directly from its sources, so we can authentically and courageously respond to the challenges of society as they arise.