29th Sunday in Ordinary Times
Isaiah 45:1,4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Gospel of Matthew 22:15-21
God First or Caesar First . . .?

Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of Good Shepherd, on 22nd October 2017

Today’s Gospel needs clarification more than inspiration.  There are two main aspects of the Gospel that it would be good that we reflect on: first, the theme of “hypocrisy” that Jesus exposed of the Pharisees and second, the clarification needed on what Jesus meant when He said, “what belongs to Caesar, give to Caesar and what belongs to God, give to God.”

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a clear statement.  It says, “The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what He said.”  And so, when the Pharisees and the Herodians (their accomplices), approached Jesus and said, “Master, 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,” they did not mean what they were saying; they were merely trying to flatter Jesus, before trying to trap Him with their question.

Jesus was aware of their malice and thus, exposed them by aptly calling them “hypocrites.”  My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us then first take note that “hypocrisy” is when there is deception.  In other words, “hypocrisy” is when a person externally shows himself to be friendly and virtuous, but internally the person has the evil intention of misleading and distorting the truth of what is happening – as in the case of the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They were externally praising Jesus as a good man when they approached Him.  However, within them, their intention was to trap Him with their question, in the hope that Jesus would get into trouble with the Roman government who collected the taxes or with the general public who refused to pay the taxes, as they felt exploited and oppressed by the ruling authorities. 

Let us say that David comes for daily Mass; he is a President of the Legion of Mary; he prays the Rosary every day and serves as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion or David may even be an ordained priest.  However, David is hot tempered at home and at work, and is addicted to pornography.  And so, those who know David gossip and call him a hypocrite.  Is David a hypocrite?  Not necessary so. . . 

David is a “hypocrite” only if he intentionally lives a life of deception.  In other words, David is a “hypocrite” only if he lives a “double life”, and does not make any efforts to try to overcome: his hot tempered behaviour, his addiction to pornography and there is no remorse for his sins.  However, if David is aware of his sins and tries very hard to overcome them, but are truly struggling and fighting the temptations in his life daily, and begging God for the graces to be freed from his ways, and going to “Confession” regularly because he is remorseful of his sins, then David is NOT a hypocrite.  David is merely a sinner who is primarily suffering from his psychological needs of his deep woundedness and hurts in his life, and is battling with trying to love God and overcoming his habitual sinful ways.  And, as such we shall not judge him; let alone gossip and condemn such a brother or sister of our community.  And so, this means that we need to make a distinction between “hypocrisy” and our “imperfections and sinfulness.” 

The second aspect of today’s Gospel that is good for us to clarify is Jesus’ statement, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God, what belongs to God.”  First, let us note that when Jesus asked for a coin and enquired, "Whose head is it on the denarius or coin on which the Jews pay their taxes”?  We are actually dealing with an issue of two images: the image of Caesar the Roman and secular ruling authorities and the image of God, the divine King of the universe. 

Clearly, Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that there are two realities in our lives: the secular reality and the divine reality.  These two realities are distinct, inseparable and different, but they are not the same and not equal in importance in our lives.  Let us take David as our illustration again.  David has to go to work every day to support and provide for his family, but at the same time we see that his work and his family are not the fullness of the reality of his life.  While it is necessary for David to pay his taxes from his earnings, and obey the civil laws of society that exist for the common good of all peoples of our nation, more importantly, David has to live the Gospel of Christ and obey the Teachings of the Church in matters of moral and faith.

While Singapore is a secular State, it is not a secularised State.  As such, in Singapore we have the freedom of religion, and the practice of our faith.  Unlike secularised States which permits the use of “Happy holidays”, and forbids the use of “Merry Christmas,” our Singapore government while secular, will do what it can to give the needed support to all religions, and help build the peace and harmony between religions, race and languages. 

However, as for us Christians, this means that while we strive to be loyal citizens, for the common good of our country, God who created us in His image and likeness is the only absolute Being we fully obey; with Jesus Christ as our Divine Saviour and Lord.  In living out his faith fully as a Christian, David and all Catholic Christians would, I believe become even more law abiding and loyal citizens. 

This is because the Gospel values that Jesus teaches and our Catholic Church upholds, through the living of our faith and moral living are totally wholesome, as they promote the respect of every person, the care and love of all our neighbour, the preservation of our ecology, and very importantly the practice and cultivation of the virtues of forgiveness, compassion, mercy and the like.

However, in areas where there are overlaps between the State and our religion like our government permitting the practice of abortion and the practices capital punishment, which are contrary our Christian faith; which upholds the sanctity of life then we as Catholic Christians would have to obey the Moral Teachings of our universal Church, instead of what is permitted by the State.  

However, in such differences, we do not impose our moral positions on others even though we uphold the sanctity of life as a universal value.  As Catholics it is clear for us that our first and ultimate allegiance and obedience is to God, through the Teaching Magisterium of our Church, who hands on the Truth of Christ for the past 2,000 years.  In short, we believe that the more Christian we are, the better citizens we would become.  This means that in-so-far as David, tries to be a good practicing Catholic, he would surely become a law abiding and loyal citizen.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, let us rejoice that we are blessed with the gift of faith.  As I sum up and conclude, let us first remind ourselves that we do make a distinction between hypocrisy and our imperfections and sinfulness.  “Hypocrisy”, like the Pharisees and Herodians, is only when there is deliberate intention to deceive others that we are “holy” and living a religiously upright life, when in fact, we are not living such a life and more so, when there is no remorse or desires to change for the better.

And finally, let us remember that while we are each called to be loyal citizens that serves the common good of all peoples and religions, we are more importantly each created in the image and likeness of God, our Father.  And as such, we are to remember that our primary fidelity in life is towards God our Father, who created us; and, with the Holy Spirit to empower and enlighten us with the wisdom to live our lives that is modelled after Jesus, who is our Lord and Saviour.  And in living such a life, we will all serve the common good as loyal citizens of our nation and indeed, of the world.  This precisely is what Jesus was proclaiming when He said to the Pharisees, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God, what belongs to God.”

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.

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