In the Amy Coney Barrett hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, we’ve been witnessing a coordinated political effort to take out and to discredit a nominee to the Supreme Court who, in the estimation of some, stands to destabilize the entire political structure and health of the nation if allowed to take a seat on the highest court in the land. Fear of loss of power is what is driving the questioning and campaign from one side of the aisle designed essentially to “entrap her in speech” so that her words can be used against her. As much as we like to think that this divisive and disingenuous political theater is the product of a modern social-media and soundbite culture, we just have to look at today’s Gospel to know that that is not the case. The hostility that Jesus faced from the religious leaders of his day was rooted in a fear that his unorthodox teaching and growing number of followers would undermine the established power structure of the religious ruling class and the tenuous stability of the relationship of the Jewish community with the Roman government. The Pharisees considered themselves religious purists and were bitterly opposed to Roman rule. They longed for independence and a messiah that would liberate them militarily from Roman oppression. Anything that would support the Romans would be considered cooperating with the enemy – those opposed to the faith. The Herodians were the political supporters of the Herodian dynasty, the Jewish aristocracy that actively collaborated with the Romans in order to maintain their positions of privilege in the society. From a religious stand-point, the Herodians were not devout or practicing Jews. They were Jewish by culture but lived a secular life. The Pharisees would have considered them sell-outs to the Romans – betrayers of the faith. The question of paying the census tax would have been a “hot button” issue of the day of which the Pharisees and Herodians were in opposing camps – the Pharisees opposed paying the tax while the Herodians supported payment of the tax. Paying the tax was burdensome and resented by the majority of the Jewish people. The Pharisees and Herodians come together here because Jesus is seen as a threat to them both. By their questioning, they are trying to get Jesus to take one side or the other – a position that they can use against him. With the Herodians present to hear the proceedings, the Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus says it is not lawful, i.e., contrary to the law of God and it should be forbidden for the Jews to pay the tax, the Herodians would report him to the Roman authorities for instigating a tax revolt. The Pharisees knew full well what the Romans would do to anyone suspected of fomenting insurrection. If Jesus affirms that it is licit to pay the tax, the Pharisees will brand him as a Roman sympathizer in an attempt to erode his popularity among the people who feel oppressed and suffer injustice under the Roman regime. Jesus does not fall for their trap but unmasks their hypocrisy and malice. He asks them for the coin that pays the census tax. The readiness with which the Pharisees produce the coin shows their hypocrisy. They are using the coin which they have been publicly denouncing. For political advantage, they say they are anti-tax, but they are paying the tax just like everybody else. Holding up the coin, Jesus asks, “Whose image is this?” The religious leaders know the image on the coin is that of Caesar. They identify it correctly. Then Jesus says, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus’ answer doesn’t put him in either camp – he doesn’t fall for the trap. Rather, his answer shows that one can in effect be a good citizen while still remaining faithful to God. Political and religious obligations both can and should be met. Jesus’ answer is a challenge to the Pharisees. They are pretending to care about the law of God, but what they are really about is using the faith for political power. They have reduced the faith to an ideology. Jesus’ answer challenges them to look at things from God’s perspective. The coin belongs to Caesar and should be given to him, but do they recognize what belongs to God? The human person made in the image of God belongs to God. “Repay” implies that something has been given to us that ultimately belongs to another – that is owed to another. Our life has been given by God and is owed to God. Do we recognize this image of God in every person? Do we see life as sacred in this way and not something whose value is determined by those in secular power?
Jesus’ answer speaks of the obligation to be a good citizen – to participate in political life – to not separate ourselves from a flawed and imperfect system but rather engage that system while at the same time giving priority to what belongs to God. Good and faithful people can reasonably disagree about how best through the government we can contribute to the common good. There can be differing prudential judgements about what level of taxation is “just” or how best to allocate the resources to serve the common good. But what God gives us is more fundamental than anything the government can give us. What God gives us is life. Life is one of the “inalienable” rights. It is not a right that government confers. It is a right that comes from God. It is not dependent on government, but rather government has an obligation to protect it. “Inalienable” means that it is something that can’t be taken away. It is a right that must be defended with “maximum determination” because all other human rights depend on the right to life. It is the foundation for all the other rights. If I do not have life, I cannot enjoy or receive any other benefit. It is false – we are being hypocritical – to say that we really care about the other human rights like healthcare, work, and equality issues – all the basic goods that every human person needs to live and to thrive, if we do not defend the right to life at the most fundamental level. It is OK to be a one-issue voter because without life, none of the other issues matter. If the right to life is not primary, than the other issues become simply tools for political advantage used to maintain power.
Neither political party fully represents a Catholic way of thinking about social issues, but that does not mean that we should not participate in the political system. We can be faithful citizens. We, as Catholics, see politics – which is the pursuit of justice and the common good – as part of the history of salvation. No one is a minor actor in that drama. We do not have a moral obligation to vote if we believe both options are morally unacceptable, but we cannot vote in good conscience for a candidate who advocates for intrinsically evil acts like abortion, euthanasia, or scientific research which involves the destruction of human embryos. These are direct attacks on life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others. Catholic public officials who disregard Church teaching on the inviolability of the human person indirectly collude in the taking of innocent life. Those political leaders who justify their inaction on the grounds that abortion is the law of the land need to recognize that there is a higher law, the law of God. No human law can validly contradict the Commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” Moral responsibility does not lie merely with elected officials but those who do the electing. Voting is one way meaningfully to participate in building a culture of life. We must exercise the privilege of voting in ways that defend human life, especially those of God’s children who are unborn. We have a responsibility to analyze campaign rhetoric and policy positions critically and to choose leaders according to principle and not party affiliation or mere self-interest.
Who is the “Cyrus” that is referred to in the first reading by the prophet Isaiah as “the anointed” of the Lord? He was the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, who defeated the Babylonians and decreed that the Israelites in exile in Babylon could return to Israel. He even provided funding for the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The point that Isaiah is making is that this pagan, this unbeliever who did not know the Lord, was used by the Lord to bring about the restoration of Israel. He was a defender of and promoter of the religious liberty of the diverse people he ruled. Religious liberty – conscience rights of the people to live their faith publicly – is another issue of fundamental importance to Catholics and people of faith. Cyrus the Persian was not who the faithful Jews would have expected to be their “messiah”. God works out salvation through political events and figures that are not of our choosing. We cannot think that our faith has nothing to do with our political action because God himself can be found at work in these events. We are citizens of the world but citizens of heaven first. We are called to participate in public discourse and be involved in the secular sphere without being secularized or selling out to the dominant culture. We are challenged to see the traps that are being laid for us and not to make politics an idol but to see things from God’s perspective and to render unto God what belongs to God while living in the world so that we transform the world with the Gospel.