If we render unto God what is God’s, what is left for Caesar?
I have often found observing children, especially as they play, to be a good source for reflecting on theology. One afternoon I was visiting with a friend and his wife. They have a son, Matt, who is about 5 years old. They had invited another couple over, who also brought their little 5 year old daughter, Samantha. We adults carried on doing adult things, and the children carried on doing childish things. I have to admit that the childish things seemed far more interesting. But being an adult I could only observe from a distance. Matt was being a good little boy trying to play with Samantha. But clearly, this was a bit of a struggle for him. For having Samantha there meant that he had to share. Watching them play, there were clearly toys that Matt was willing to share with Samantha, and toys that she, as long as Matt had something to do about it, was not going to touch. He would push the toys that he wanted to share towards Samantha, and then back away guarding the others. This of course made the other toys only more enticing to Samantha, and within minutes a fight broke out and parental policing was needed. These toys were like a part of Matt. And there were clearly parts of himself that Matt was willing to share, and other parts that he was not going to give up.
If we render unto God what is God’s, what is left for Caesar?
The Gospel we heard today has been used in many ways to defend and develop numerous types of political theologies and philosophies. It has even been used to defend liberal democracies, especially as seen in the United States. I am not going to enter into that debate here. But I do believe that this Gospel poses to us all a challenge that most likely we (and this includes myself) struggle to live: A challenge that can be seen in light of Matt and his toys. Like Matt, there are parts of ourselves that we are willing to render unto God, and parts of ourselves that we are not yet willing to hand over.
In my first two years in the missions I would get so excited for Christmas and Easter. Not only because this represented the highest liturgical time of the year. But also, because at this time, I would be able to see the classic “Chreasters” return to Mass. You know, the people who are Catholic and only go to Mass on Christmas and Easter, hence Chreasters. Now I know that it is easy to get frustrated with these people. On the one hand it is good that at least they are making an effort to be present. At least they haven’t forgotten completely about their faith. On the other hand, we know that FAITH IS SO MUCH MORE THAN THIS. When Jesus says that we must render unto God what is God’s, he is not saying that thinking about faith twice a year is sufficient. He is saying that God requires all of us, he requires everything, he asks for our full devotion and dedication and will. All of our love. This is what differentiates Catholicism from many of the post-modern manifestations of religion. Catholicism requires all of us: and this is why it is both a path to true joy, but also something that requires tremendous sacrifice and even pain on our part.
But before we become too hard on the Chreasters, it might be worth admitting that maybe we all are Chreasters in our own way.
· We come to church and light our candle and we feel good about ourselves. And we have done our prayer deed, and don’t think about praying for another month.
· We check Sunday mass off the list and then give little thought to worshipping God out in our so-called public lives.
· We volunteer on a committee at church and think that well, we are doing quite a bit, and so we have figured out what it means to be Christian.
· We give to charity and support the church, but we don’t give much thought whether the way in which we are earning our money is actually doing more harm to others than good.
The list could go on. We are all guilty of this: priests, laity, and religious. We all are Chreasters at some level in our own heart. We do our minimum, and oftentimes these are very good things. But we fail to see that faith could be so much more.
Part of the problem, as many of us know, is the way in which modern society is set up. Everything attempts to stand on its own; to be autonomous, and therefore everything becomes fragmented and separated. What happens at church stays in church, what happens at work stays at work, what happens on Friday night stays at Friday night. Morality exists at church and ethics becomes what is done in public. We then get caught up in this system that dissects us and fragments us, we become this kind of person here and that kind of person there. And if we are lucky, we barely render unto God what is God’s on Sunday morning. And then it can only be true that the Mass becomes boring, that faith becomes irrelevant: for faith is meant to be universal, to penetrate every part of our lives and every part of reality. That is what it means to be catholic.
I suppose some could deny this narrative, and they are free to do so. It is bleak and not something that particularly makes us happy. But my experience as a priest in the missions, especially when dealing with families highlights this reality. Hispanic families would emigrate from Mexico and move into the rural areas of the South. For the first generation of parents faith was everything. They came from a heavily Catholic culture. They rendered unto God what was God’s. They rendered everything. But just one generation later, as I listened to these parents with tears in their eyes, their own kids no longer cared about faith. Caught up in the culture of the United States God was forced from the lives of their kids to being something only in the Church, then only in the family, then only personal, and then it was gone.
As this first session of the Synod on the Family comes to an end, I think it is important to highlight this crisis of faith as being the biggest threat to the family, and thus to the church and to society. I have the greatest admiration for the families that go to St. Kwintens. I have gotten to know many of you already and look forward to meeting many more. You sacrifice tremendously for your kids. You are trying and your efforts are inspiring. But out of love as your priest and also a friend, I think it is important that we ask this question together: What will make our families here any different from those Hispanic families in the missons? Will we have the same tears for our children a generation from now? I know there are exceptions to every rule and that even when some families do everything right their children don’t remain in the faith. BUT this should not keep us from asking this important question: How can families model to their children that we are called to render unto God what is God’s? For it is only within family that we can learn that our belief in God, our Catholic faith, must penetrate every single aspect of our being and of our lives. Unless we fight for this everyday and make cognizant that so much in society is pushing our families in the opposite direction we will be no different than those countless Mexican parents wondering what happened to their kids.
When my friend’s son Matt struggled to share all of his toys with Samantha, he got down on his knees and modeled to his son what it meant to share all of himself with others. May we get down on our knees and ask God that we might be able to model to our kids what it means to render unto God what belongs to God. In the end, let us pray that there is nothing much left for Caesar.