Do you remember when you attended high school, there were certain books we were assigned to read, the “must reads.” Some of you may remember … “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, with its themes of racial injustice and loss of innocence, “The Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, an unsettling story to say the least. “1984” by George Orwell, where a utopian society goes mad - and then there was “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, a journal written about his experience in 1845, living in a small cabin, on a pond for two years in Concord Massachusetts. Thoreau wrote in Walden “ I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Being young, living in a bustling city, I too wanted to live in the woods, live off the land … but it never happened, though I did travel throughout our country, in sleeping bag and tent, trips that were certainly influenced by Thoreau. Thoreau wrote many other good books and essays such as the trip to the Maine woods, walking Cape Cod, Life without Principle, and his controversial essay, “Civil Disobedience.”
Published in 1849, Civil Disobedience was Thoreau’s argument that individuals should not permit governments to overrule their consciences. His argument was motivated by his abhorrence with slavery and his opposition to the Mexican–American War. This essay influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi - in his vision for a free India, and Martin Luther King Jr., - in his vision of a society free of prejudice and violence. Henry Thoreau was not a religious man. He once said "I suppose that what in other men is religion - is in me love of nature." Still, he was well versed in scripture. Today’s gospel passage (MT22:15-21) is mentioned in Thoreau’s essay Civil disobedience.
Pharisees and Herodians collaborate to entrap Jesus. Who were the Pharisees? Nationalists who were vehemently anti-Roman. Who were the Herodians? Jews who were willing to collaborate with the Romans – looking to benefit from that relationship. Pharisees and Herodians were bitter enemies - but they had one thing in common, hatred of Jesus. The Pharisees hated Jesus because He threatened their security, prestige and income. The Herodians saw Jesus as a threat to the peace of Israel.
So begins the trap. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Now, If Jesus says “yes”, the Jews will want to kill him, as the Romans were an intrusion upon the people of Israel. If Jesus says “no”, the Romans may want to kill him - as the poll tax is required.
So how does Jesus escape this situation? He asks “Let me see the money you pay the tax with, whose image and name is on the coin." “Caesars” they say. Jesus answers “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” All who heard must have been stunned – silenced in confusion.
Now, in the Roman world, Caesar was not only the emperor, he also had “divine attributes.” Jesus takes away the “divinity” of the emperor when he says “Give to the Emperor, what is owed to the emperor, and give to God, what is owed to God.” Jesus implies a separation between loyalty to the state - and loyalty to God. Both require certain loyalties. So, what is Jesus teaching us today?
1. Our loyalty to God must be manifested by love, in gratitude and service, in our love of neighbor, in our obedience.
2. Our loyalty to government can only be a “qualified” loyalty. This loyalty depends on a government’s duty to protect its citizens. Catholic Social Teaching says the chief duty of every public authority is "to safeguard the in-violable rights of the human person, and “to facilitate the fulfillment of his duties.” If any government does not acknowledge the rights of man - or violates them, it not only fails in its duty, but its “orders” completely lack juridical force. Government should “mirror” God’s law.
Henry David Thoreau looked at the government of his time and saw a government that embraced a “manifest destiny”, an expansion mentality, a government willing to take land regarding the cost – in a transparent attempt to extend slavery into new territories that would become new slave states. Thoreau would be imprisoned for his “Civil Disobedience”, his unwillingness to pay taxes that would benefit the war effort.
Do the actions of our government today mirror God’s law? In our society, human life is under direct attack from abortion and euthanasia. The value of human life is being threatened by cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and the use of the death penalty. Catholic organizations and societies, i.e. The Little Sisters of the Poor, are being coerced “to provide insurance coverage for abortifacients, contraception and sterilization.
Catholics, all good Christians, must discern whether - and to what extent a given government and its policies merit loyalty and support – and discern how to respond to such policies - only in the context of God’s love and mercy.
St. Paul said to the Thessalonians, “to show our faith in action, work for love and persevere through hope, in our Lord Jesus Christ.”