Rendering to God
Oct. 18, 2008
Fr. George Smiga
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.