Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, "Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to anyone’s status; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn't we?"

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. "Why are you trying to trap me?" he asked. "Bring me a denarius and let me look at it." They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." And they were amazed at him.
Mark 12:13-17

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When the Pharisees and Herodians approached Jesus with this question, they thought they had caught him in a trap. To say no would be considered treason; to say yes, would be denying his faith in God. Jesus answer does not make a distinction between religion and politics. Faithful disciples of Jesus keep the Ten Commandments. Responsible citizens obey the law of the land.

Let us turn the pages of the universal calendar to a time nearly eighteen hundred years later, and consider two significant documents of the late 1700s.

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
The Declaration of Independence

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Constitution of the United States – Amendment 1

The question has been asked many times over the course of the centuries. The answer has always remained the same. The disciples of Jesus have an obligation to obey God’s law, as summarized in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). But we have a parallel obligation to obey the laws of the country where they reside. Like the song said, “They go together like a horse and carriage.”

I have an admission to make. For some time now, I have been avoiding any comment on the relationship of the disciples of Jesus to the law of the land in which they live. Today’s readings, and current events, leave me no other option.

The disciples of Jesus in the lands of the Mediterranean Basin from Pontus in Asia on the east, to Massilia in Gaul (or Marseilles in France) on the west were bound to obey the law of the land. People from both locations were among those touched by the Spirit of God on the day of Pentecost. The records show that they were law abiding citizens of the Roman Empire, which had no objection to the practice of religion of any stripe.

We live in a nation that has recently elected a new Chief Executive, one whose thoughts and statements on the right of a woman to choose appear to be at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church on the right to life of an unborn child. But the obligation of the President of the United States is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the First Amendment states clearly that the Congress shall make no law (and therefore, the Chief Executive shall enforce no law) imposing a religious test upon any citizen.

The woman who chooses to have an abortion is making a decision which, at the present time, is lawful. Whether or not she commits a sin is a religious question, and the Government of the United States has no voice pro or con in matters of religion. On the other hand, a person who enters a house of worship and shoots a physician who performs late term abortions has committed a capital crime of homicide according to the law of the land, and a mortal sin against the Fifth Commandment according to the norms of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and teachings.

The President of the United States, in a speech delivered at a university in northern Indiana, proposed that a strategy might be devised to reduce the number of abortions. If the goal of the “pro-life” proponents is zero (0) abortions, then any reduction in the number of abortions is clearly a move in the direction toward achieving that goal. The longest journey, said a wise man, begins with the first step. The same wise man, a Chinese philosopher, also said that the journey of a hundred miles is only half completed at ninety.

If we refuse to cooperate in an endeavor to reduce the number of children whose lives end before they are born we still are correctly characterized by others as “anti-abortion”, but how can we honestly and sincerely call ourselves “pro-life”?

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