Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thes 1:1-5b; Mt 22:15-21 ]
Before I begin, are any tax collectors here this morning? No? Good. Why do they call the 1040 a tax return when you get nothing back? Filling it out is something like a do-it-yourself mugging! And it's so complicated. Even the world's greatest mathematician, Albert Einstein, had to hire an accountant to figure out his tax return. Someone said it would be nice if we could pay taxes with a smile, but Congress requires cash. In the good old days politicians used to collect taxes and then spend every penny. Later they began spending everything before they collected your money. Now they're spending taxes they won't be collecting for the next two or three generations. However, some things in life are still free, like the Internet, but the IRS is working on that problem, too. I think we should change our National Anthem to “Deep in the Heart of Taxes.”
Now, taxes aren't all bad. They pay for our roads and bridges; they support our armed forces to provide security at home and abroad. They supplement the cost of education and health care, especially for the poor. Without taxes we wouldn't have the means to preserve law and order, peace and prosperity. There would be no Social Security or Medicare. Jesus never told us to stop paying taxes. Instead, he taught respect for the state, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” St. Paul expresses it this way: “The state is God's servant for our well-being” (Rom 13:4).
But if the first half of Jesus' reply to the Pharisees and Herodians teaches respect for government, the second half teaches the limitations of the state: “[Give back] to God what belongs to God.” Almost everywhere today, governments are overreaching their limitations, restricting or even denying the rights of conscience and freedom of religion.
Erik Larson wrote a book titled, “In the Garden of the Beasts, Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.” It is about Professor William Dodd, the ambassador to Germany at the beginning of Hitler's power. The ambassador was sickened by Hitler's violence and quest for world-power. He reported that Hitler was trying to make the rising generation worship their chief and prepare the way for a world where freedom of the press, of individuals, of education, and of churches would be totally suppressed. The consolidation of Hitler's power happened in a single weekend called The Night of Long Knives, June 30 to July 2, 1934. Eighty-five of his strongest political enemies were murdered and hundreds more were imprisoned. It happened so quickly. Freedoms and rights can be lost overnight!
In our lifetimes, there have been more political assassinations and martyrs for their faith than ever before in the history of the world. The Caesars of today want more than what belongs to them. They want what belongs to God alone, the submission of our consciences.
In the last days of his life Jesus said, “Because wickedness is multiplied, most people's love will grow cold, but whoever endures to the end will be saved,” (Mt. 24:12). And he said, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8). These are frightening warnings about the future of faith and love. It seems Christianity will diminish and almost disappear. How can we prepare ourselves not to lose hope but to stand firm and give back to God what belongs to God? By praying for the grace of perseverance, even martyrdom.
Before Jesus was imprisoned and crucified he urged us to pray for this. He said, “Watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place and to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk 21:36). That's a prayer worth repeating every day: “Oh Lord, may I have the grace to endure and escape all that is to come and to stand before you in joy when you appear.”
Perseverance is a grace. Let us pray for it daily so that we can give back to God what belongs to God, our very selves made in the image of God.