29th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; October 18, 2020
Readings: Is 45:1, 4-6; Ps 96:1,3-5,7-10; 1 Th 1:1-5; Mt 22:15-21
With just two weeks left before the election, when everyone is weary of politics and wishing we
were all over with it, God’s providence has assigned to us the great ‘political Gospel’: Repay to
Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
The words are evidently true and just, but their meaning might not be so obvious as we tend to
In today’s world, someone might easily take these words as a blanket endorsement of the
separation of Church and State, an affirmation that the things of God have nothing to do with
the things of Caesar, that the word of God has nothing to say to politics, that the clergy should
just keep their mouth shut, that religion should be restricted to the realm of the private and
personal. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Truly the words do speak to the relation of Church and State, because Caesar represents all civil
authority, while the Church, the Roman Catholic Church, has been entrusted with the care of
what belongs to God.
Before leaving this world, Jesus said to the Apostles: All authority in heaven and on earth has
been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name
of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have
commanded you. And behold, I am with you always. (Mt 28:18-20)
Notice first that the authority of Christ the King has no limits. While he was on earth, the man
Jesus Christ did not rule over anything and even submitted himself to the unjust judgment of
Caesar’s representative, Pontius Pilate. After he ascended into heaven, he entered into his
kingship and now rules the universe with the fulness of his divine authority.
Next, notice that he delegates to his Apostles a definite mission, together with the authority
needed to carry out that mission. That mission is universal in its scope, extending to all nations
on earth and through the whole duration of time until Christ’s return in judgment. That mission
involves leading men to faith in Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel (make
disciples), giving them to share in the life of the Holy Trinity through the sacrament of baptism,
and teaching them the way of life proper to the children of God.
This apostolic authority comes directly from Christ the King, is subject to no human authority,
but is answerable only to Christ himself. Just as all men are bound to believe in Jesus Christ, all
men are bound to obey the apostolic authority.
Throughout the course of history there have been abuses of authority on the part of those who
are heirs of the apostolic authority, that is the bishops of the Catholic Church. Today we meet
with widespread abuse of the apostolic authority, together with the failure to exercise true
apostolic authority. When that happens there always arises a temptation to demand ‘lay
oversight’, a sort of oversight that would not merely seek to correct the abuse but would
overturn the divinely established authority. To put the matter simply, the laity cannot correct
the hierarchy from a position of authority, but only from a position of petition and
collaboration. The abuse does not take away the authority.
The same is true of the civil authority of modern-day Caesars, even democratically elected. As a
general rule they do not even recognize the divine origin of their authority. Far and wide they
abuse their authority in opposition to God. Nevertheless, their authority remains and their just
commands are to be obeyed.
In any case, the presence in the world of the apostolic authority of the Church presents a real
challenge to the authority of Caesar, especially because Caesar tends to think that his authority
is supreme; we need to think hard about the implications of our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel
in order to grasp the right relation between the authority of Caesar, that is all civil authority,
and the apostolic authority to care for what belongs to God.
First, our Lord’s argument bears on paying tax to Caesar. The coin bears the image and
inscription of Caesar, so he says, Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. He certainly did not
mean that Caesar has a right to all our money but there is a lot of meaning contained in that
The coin minted by Caesar makes possible peaceful economic exchange over a wide area. So,
the coin really represents Caesar’s responsibility for the maintenance of a peaceful temporal
order that allows exchange to take place and human life to flourish. A wise Caesar would
realize that peaceful economic exchange and the prosperity that it represents is not the goal of
his rule, but the sign that he has been ruling well.
When the rule of Caesar fails, human society falls into anarchy while lawlessness and
brigandage abound. Travel becomes dangerous and it is no longer safe to go outside at night.
By way of contrast, there are towns and even cities in this country where people remember
being able to leave their house without locking their doors. That says something about the
character of the people, their trustworthiness, a basic level of virtue.
A virtuous people: that should be the basic goal of Caesar, without which human life cannot
flourish. The cradle for virtue is a healthy marriage and family life; children being born to
married parents and growing up beneath the watchful care of a loving father and mother.
But what are the limits of Caesar’s authority? It is contained in Jesus’ question: Whose image is
this and whose inscription? The economic order regulated by Caesar’s authority bears his
stamp. Taxes are the price of admission into the benefits of the economic order.
But let us take Jesus’ question and ask, “Whose image and whose inscription do we find on the
human soul?” We find the image of God, the Most Holy Trinity, engraved in the human powers
of intellect and will, and we find the inscription of Jesus Christ, our Savior, marked on the souls
of the baptized. The soul belongs to God and is cared for by Christ’s Church.
In a word the things that belong to Caesar belong to this passing world; the things that belong
to God and are cared for by the Church relate to salvation of souls and eternal life. As the things
of this world need to be ordered to eternal life, so the things of Caesar need to be ordered to
the things of God. Caesar himself possesses a soul that belongs to God; he must give his own
soul to God and must at least respect that the souls of those subject to his rule belong first to
God. Further, Caesar is not the mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ is. The Church is
not subject to Caesar but to Jesus Christ.
What does all this have to do with the elections?
Let us consider the issue of religious freedom.
The Second Vatican Council in teaching about religious freedom prefaced its remarks with this
affirmation: “Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to
worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves
untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true
religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” (DH 1)
What is that traditional Catholic doctrine, taught with apostolic authority? Leo XIII in 1885
taught: “Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in
holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him, since from Him we came, bind also
the civil community by a like law. For, men living together in society are under the power of
God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God
who gave it being and maintains it and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with
countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and
since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both in interior affection and exterior
work – not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins,
and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion – it is a public
crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for
religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of
religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to
worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will.” (Immortale Dei 6) That is the
At the Second Vatican Council the Church effectively declared to the secular state that would
separate itself altogether from God: “Well, if you are not going to listen to our apostolic
authority, then at least you must leave us alone. Not only must you leave us alone, but you
must leave other religions alone as well. You must not presume to enter into the realm of
conscience and coerce people against their beliefs.”
That leaves before us in this election some fundamental questions. Which candidate or which
party is more likely to limit the realm of religious freedom? Which candidate or which party is
more likely to limit, in particular, the liberty that the Catholic Church enjoys by divine right as
the true religion willed by God? Which candidate or which party is more likely to enter into the
realm of conscience and force people to speak and act against a rightly formed religious
Which candidate is more likely to prohibit believing Catholics participation in the political,
economic, and social life of the country, unless they compromise with the new ‘super right’ of
These questions are not idle or meaningless today. There is a real and grave danger that the
American Caesar will not merely oppose the Church of God, effectively prohibiting the Church
to teach what she has always taught from Christ, but effectively rendering null and void the first
freedom guaranteed by our own Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In the Bill of Rights, religious
freedom comes even before freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. When the first
freedom goes, the remaining freedoms will go with it; that leads to totalitarianism.
There is another way we could look at this election. We could look at it in relation to today’s 1st
Who is this Cyrus of whom the prophet speaks? Who is so favored by God? Remarkably he does
not belong to the people of God, though he has been ‘anointed’ by God for the sake of his
To grasp the significance of Cyrus, a King, it would be good to set him in contrast with an earlier
king, Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian king who conquered the kingdom
of Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, burnt the temple, and led the people into captivity. That is why
Babylon has become the paradigmatic ‘evil empire’ opposed to God and to his people. (cf. Rev
17-18) Cyrus was the Persian king who conquered Babylon and overthrew the Babylonian
empire. Cyrus did more than that; in the first year after his conquest of Babylon he issued this
decree: Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: ‘All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord, the God of
heaven has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is
in Judah. Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and
may his God be with him!’ (2 Ch 36:23)
So we could ask, which candidate is more likely to act like Nebuchadnezzar and which is more
likely to act like Cyrus?
Finally, though, let us return to the baptized soul that bears the image of God, the most Holy
Trinity, and the inscription of Christ, our Savior. That means each one of us: we must take care
first and foremost to give to God what belongs to him, even at the cost of our own life. That is
what is most important. If we give our soul to God, we have nothing to fear. That is what the
Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is all about.