What God Owns
October 16, 2005
Matthew 22: 15 – 21
The following letter was found in the files on the Internal Revenue Service. “Dear IRS, my conscience has been bothering me. I am including a check for $5,000 to pay my back taxes.” At the bottom of the letter was a postscript, “If my conscience continues to bother me, I will send the rest.”
No one likes to pay taxes. Even though we realize the government needs to operate, we want to keep taxes low. We want to give the government the least amount of money we can. Here is where today’s gospel poses such a problem for us. Although the gospel seems to be about taxes, it is about much more. Those who question Jesus try to trap him by asking him whether a good Jew should pay the tax to the emperor or not. If he says they should, he will alienate many of his followers who are opposed to supporting the oppressive Roman Empire that occupies their land. If he says they should not, he risks trouble with Rome, which is something you would not want to do. Jesus escapes the trap by asking for a coin and pointing out that fact that the Emperor’s head is on the coin. He then says you can give that coin to the emperor as long as you give to God what belongs to God.
Here is where the story deepens. “Give to God what belongs to God.” It sounds innocent when you first hear it. But what belongs to God? Everything. What do we have that does not belong to God? Now some people point to this passage saying that Jesus is proposing equality between the state and God, akin to the separation of church and state. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus admits that the state has some claim on what we have, but he says that God has a claim on all we have. What do we have that does not belong to God? Our Life? The world around us? Our family? Our children, our grandchildren, our relationships, our health, our talents, our future? It is all God’s.
Now this truth is so fundamental that we often overlook it. But there are only two possibilities. If God does not exist, if God is not real, then everything we are and everything we possess have come about by chance. In that case we can do what we wish with our time and our money. But if God is real, if God does exist, (and we come together every week professing that God does), then all that we have is not our own. All we have has only been entrusted to us to be used for God’s purposes. I believe that these are the only possibilities. I have looked through all the scriptures for a loophole on this. I cannot find one. If God exists, then God has a claim on everything.
Now of course God loves us and wants us to be happy. Therefore God expects that a good deal of what has been entrusted to us will be used for our own benefit. God expects us to use our time, our money, and our resources to support our family, to have a comfortable life style, to use for recreation, to achieve security for the future. God does not begrudge us using our time, and our money for ourselves.
But it is the attitude of the thing. You see a Christian cannot really say, “It is my time and my money to use how I wish.” A Christian must say, “It is God’s time and God’s money, entrusted to me to be used for myself and for others. The word we use to describe this truth is “stewardship.” Everything we have has been entrusted to us as stewards to be used for God’s purposes. Now I know that many of us here in this parish understand the truth of stewardship. It would be impossible for St. Noel to function as a believing community without the time, the talent and the money that is given by so many. On a weekly basis I see how many people donate their time and talent so that prisoners in the jail can be visited, so that the homebound can receive communion, so that we may grow as a parish in religious formation through the GIFT program, so that we may have a greater awareness of peace and justice. None of this could happen without a deep sense of stewardship.
I was deeply impressed a year ago as we were experiencing financial difficulties. When we presented that need, so many people examined their own financial contributions and were willing to give more as a sign of stewardship for all that they had received from God. Because they made that kind of a decision and have been faithful to it, we are now in a much better financial position. I am convinced that as people continue to appreciate stewardship, we will be able to grow and deepen as a faith community. It would, however, be a mistake to equate what you give here at St. Noel to what belongs to God. Everything belongs to God. All that we have been given is to build God’s kingdom. You know in what that kingdom consists. We hear it in God’s word regularly: caring for the poor and vulnerable, protecting life, protecting the planet, promoting peace and justice, reaching out in reconciliation. This is God’s kingdom, and we are stewards of that kingdom. God expect us to use what we have been given and promote God’s will on earth.
This is why today’s gospel is so challenging. Unlike the IRS, our master cannot be deceived. As Christian stewards we must be ready at any time for God to ask us, “How are you spending my time? What are you doing with my money? How are you living the life that I have entrusted to you?”
Rendering to God
Oct. 18, 2008
It amazes me how frequently the gospels which we use in our liturgy address the particular issues which we are facing at any given time. The readings which we use come from the Lectionary, which selects certain passages from the gospels and assigns them to each Sunday of the year in a pre-determined cycle that repeats every three years. Yet, despite this set pattern, it is amazing how a particular gospel can address issues that no one could have anticipated or faced when the Lectionary was put together.
Today’s gospel is a case in point. This is one of the few passages in the New Testament that directly addresses the issues of money, taxes, and government involvement in the financial dealings of ordinary people. What could be more relevant? What is foremost on our minds, if not money and finances? Our economy is in a free fall. Credit is frozen. Investors are in a panic. The government is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into our institutions in order to avoid financial depression. And analysts are preparing us for what is yet to come. This downward economic spiral will not only effect our investments but also our jobs, our salaries, and the value of our homes. It seems that for the last number of years we have been living in an artificial bubble of prosperity. But now the bubble has burst, and most of us will have to make adjustments in our life styles.
So what can this economic gospel tell us about the economic crisis that we are facing? To retrieve its message, we must first understand it correctly. All too often this gospel is misunderstood. Some people would interpret Jesus’ words as dividing life into two distinct spheres: a political sphere and a spiritual sphere. When Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” some people imagine that he believes that some things, like material goods and finances, belong to Caesar and other things, such as spiritual goods and moral decisions, belong to God. But, as any believer can tell you, this interpretation of Jesus’ words is patently false. Believers know that everything belongs to God, both the spiritual and the material, both the holy and the financial. Caesar can make some claims on us: we must pay our taxes. But God can make every claim on us. All that we have, including our money and the way that we use it, belongs to God. God’s authority extends to all things. Therefore all that we are and all that we have must be understood in relation to God’s power and to God’s love. With this perspective we can see Jesus’ words as asserting God’s ultimate authority over all things. What meaning, then, can we draw from the gospel in light of our current financial crisis?
I would suggest to you that today’s gospel poses two questions to us: How much do we need and who do we trust? How much do we need? The truth is that we need a lot less than we think we need. When you are accustomed to live in an artificial bubble of prosperity, you begin to confuse the things that you can have with the things you must have. When that bubble bursts, it provides an opportunity to ask what is really important. We might in the future have to make adjustments in the way that we live. We may not be as free to go out as often or we might not be able to buy some of the things that previously we were able to buy. We might have to re-imagine the shape of our retirement. These are all changes we would prefer not to make, but are they the really important things? Do we really think that those things are the source of our happiness or joy? The truth is, we can be happy with a lot less than we are accustomed to. In fact, some of us are old enough to remember us being happy in exactly that way. When many of us were growing up we did not have as many material things as we have today. Yet we were happy. We were happy because we had the things that were important: family, friends, integrity, and the willingness to use what we had for the benefit of others. These are the things that belong to God. When we use them according to God’s will, we can be happy, even if we have less money. How much do we need? We need less than we have become accustomed to.
That leads to the second question: Who do we trust? You can find the answer on the dollar bill. In God we trust. Of course we always trust in God. But when things were going well financially, we probably also trusted in money. We felt that if God failed to catch us, we would still have a deep financial cushion on which we could land. But now when that cushion becomes thin or disappears, it becomes clear that the only source of abiding trust and faithfulness is our trust in God. God alone has made us, saved us, and promised to be with us. God alone will prove trustworthy in good times and in bad, in boom and in bust. As we face the financial adjustments of the future, we put our trust in God.
So it is clear that there are certain things that we must render to Caesar. We must pay our taxes and all of us in one way or another are going to have to pay for the hundreds of billions of dollars that are being borrowed to bail out the economy. But those costs are not the most important things in our lives. If we live our lives with love and service, we can still be happy, even if we have less money. If we render to God the things that are God’s, we will not be disappointed.
The Witness of Noel Chabanel
October 19, 2014
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Catholic parishes do not choose their patron saint. The patron saint (and therefore the name of the parish) are chosen by the bishop at the time that the parish is founded. In 1980 James Hickey was bishop of Cleveland and he had a long standing devotion to the North American Jesuit Martyrs. So when he founded this parish, he named it after one of them: Noël Chabanel. Now most of you know that the word Noël means Christmas in French. But we as a parish were not named after Christmas. We were named after a Jesuit martyr who was named after Christmas. Each year when we celebrate his feast day, we ask ourselves “What is there in the life of this person that can be useful to us as we follow Jesus?”
Today’s second reading is helpful. Paul says to the Thessalonians that when God called them to faith in Jesus that call did not come only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit. That is to say, when God calls us to do something, God does not simply say, “Do this.” God also gives us the power and the strength to live out that call. This truth is clearly seen in the life of Noël Chabanel. Noël joined the Jesuits when he was seventeen years old. He excelled at academics, especially languages. He loved the arts and his sophisticated French culture. It seemed that he was on course to teach in one of the great Jesuit universities of Europe. But after a short time Noël came to the conclusion that God was calling him to become a missionary in the New World. He assumed that his ability at language would help him learn the language of the Native Americans. He convinced his superiors to let him join a Jesuit missionary team that was working with the Huron Indians around the Great Lakes. Noël soon found out how ill equipped he was for the work. Despite his best efforts he could not learn the native language. Nothing prepared him for the brutality of the Huron culture. He found it impossible to eat and digest the Indian food. His health quickly deteriorated. Noël Chabanel did not have the mindset or the stamina to be a missionary. But he remained convinced that God was calling him to this work. And he believed that if God was calling him, God would provide him with the strength to carry this out his mission. So he continued to teach and to preach among the Huron Indians for the rest of his life.
Our patron, Noël, is a reminder that when God calls us to do something, we can count upon God’s help and strength to live that call out. When God calls us to commit ourselves to someone in marriage, to enter the priesthood or religious life, to live the single life; we should trust and believe that the same God who calls us will empower us so that we can follow that call successfully. When we commit ourselves to our friends, we should believe that God will be with us to make us flexible and adaptive so that those friendships can last. When we take on some important project to help another person—when we decide to adopt a child or care for an aging parent or try to influence change in the neighborhood in which we live—we should trust and believe that God is going to give us the wisdom and the courage to bring that project to completion.
This of course does not mean that we can never change course. Marriages fail. Priests leave the ministry. Friends separate. The best of projects can run aground. And in those circumstances, we may discern that God is calling us to something new. But the presumption is that if God calls us to something, that is where we should stay. So when our spouses become difficult, when our ministry becomes empty, when our friends start to annoy us, we should remember the example of Noël. We should believe that God’s call is not simply a matter of words, but of power. God does not simply say to us, “Go there.” God says, “I will go with you.”
What Belongs to God
October 22, 2017
Today’s gospel is one of the most misread passages in the New Testament. You all know the story. People come to Jesus to ask him whether or not it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar. During Jesus’ lifetime, Palestine was under Roman rule, and the Romans demanded of every Jew the annual payment of a tax. The people wanted to know Jesus’ opinion of this practice. Asking for a coin that bore the image and inscription of the emperor Caesar, Jesus says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Well, obviously, the coin belonged to Caesar. It had his image and his inscription. So Jesus was saying that it was acceptable to pay the temple tax. So far so good.
But some commentators take the meaning of this passage further. And here is where we can easily misread it. Some suggest that Jesus is setting up two separate and parallel realms of power: one that belongs to Caesar and one that belongs to God, one that is political, and one that is religious. In Caesar’s realm you must repay to Caesar what Caesar desires, and in God’s realm you must repay to God what God desires. In this interpretation, Jesus is setting up an absolute separation between church and state.
Now the fallacy of this interpretation can be easily shown by turning the last part of Jesus’ saying into a question. How would Jesus answer this question: What belongs to God? Would Jesus answer that God’s authority is limited only to the temple or what exists in people’s hearts? He would not and could not because, as a Jew, Jesus understood that God was the creator of all things and of all people. Therefore, God’s authority could not be limited only to religious matters. It must pertain to all matters.
Now the separation of church and state is a useful concept in the political sphere. It rightly says that governments do not have the right to impose upon their citizens what they believe or how they pray. But the separation of church and state does not apply to God, because God cannot be separated from creation or from all of humanity. Everything belongs to God.
When we read this passage in this way, it is a reminder of our responsibility to exercise our rights within our political system to express the values that flow from our belief in God. Here are two of them:
As followers of Jesus we must approach things with a worldview. It is not sufficient for us only to be concerned about America and Americans, because God has created all people and has given to each person a basic human dignity. Therefore, our national policies concerning immigration or international trade agreements cannot be based only on what profits Americans. That might be okay with Caesar, but it is not okay with God. We must be people with a worldview.
We must also be people concerned about the least among us. Anyone who knows the teaching of Jesus understands that Jesus’ ministry was among the most marginalized of people. Therefore, as we set our national policies, we cannot ignore the child within his mother’s womb, the family without access to healthcare, or adopt a tax program that ignores the needs of the poorest among us. Doing that might be okay with Caesar, but it is not okay with God.
Adopting a worldview and showing concern for the least among us does not mean that we have to be either Democrat or Republican. Nor does it mean that we have to promote or reject any particular piece of legislation. But it does mean that we must be willing to judge every political party and every piece of legislation from God’s perspective. Jesus tells us that we must repay to God what belongs to God. But everything belongs to God. That is why we must be willing to express our faith, not simply here in church, but in every area of our lives.
The Coloring Book
October 18, 2020
I think I was two or three years old when I received my first coloring book. So many bright colors in the crayon box. So many puppies and flowers that I could color with abandon. But it was some time later when I grew older that my mother sat me down and said, “George, you are no longer a baby. I am going to show you how to color. You have to stay within the lines. You see this line here? The puppy is to this side not the other. See this circle? The sun is inside of it, not outside of it.” I listened to my mother and with time and patience I learned to color like a big boy. I learned to color within the lines.
Now adults do not use coloring books. But the rules of coloring have a way of following us into our lives. There is a strong compulsion for all of us to live within the lines. We draw bold lines around certain parts of our life and set them apart, convincing ourselves that by doing this we will somehow be better able to cope with the complexity and complications of living. We block apart pieces of our day on our calendar, whether it is electronic or paper, so that we can keep to the schedule. That’s living within the lines. We want our meat on our plate, our salad in a bowl, and we do not want our peas to mix with the mashed potatoes. That’s just the way things should be.
We even draw lines around the things we think and believe. This is business. This is politics. This is faith. Yes, that is a really noble idea, but this is business. The church should not be talking about that, because that is politics. This is truly the right thing for everyone, as long as you are not speaking about my child, my job, or my neighborhood. Of course I believe in God. I am a person of faith. That is why I come to church. This is God’s time. This is God’s place. It is best to keep God here. After all, that is staying within the lines.
Now it might seem that Jesus is drawing lines in today’s gospel. He says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” But Jesus is doing the exact opposite. Some things belong to Caesar, but everything belongs to God. It is impossible to draw a line around God’s love. We are not able to separate God’s care and power from any part of creation. After all, God made the world without lines. Day flows into night and then back again. The seasons unfold one after another. God’s presence and beauty cannot be limited to this or that place, this or that group, this or that person.
The gospel calls us to accept the universal claim of God over all that is and the dignity of all God has made. Therefore, when we are tempted to build our world only out of our own ideas and opinions, God invites us to open our heart and mind wider and let bigger ideas get in. When we are tempted to limit our care and concern only to our neighborhood and our family, God asks us to step over that line and accept our connectedness to every person who lives on this planet. When we try to reduce God’s claim on us to that which is comfortable or to things that we can control, God asks us to accept the mystery of our call and allow God to change us into the new people we are called to be.
The world is not a coloring book. It is a cosmic act of love over which God rules supreme. So let us drop the crayons from our hands and enter God’s embrace.