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Sunday 29, Year A: God’s servant first

I wonder if you knew that a saint and martyr was once the MP for Great Yarmouth and the Speaker of the House of Commons? It was St. Thomas More. He later went on to become a Privy Counsellor, the personal secretary to Henry VIII and Chancellor of the Realm. But none of these political successes turned his head. He remained always a fervent Catholic. And when the time came, and he was forced to choose between God and king, there was no question which it should be. Henry VIII wanted Thomas to take what was called the oath of supremacy, which declared Henry to be supreme authority over the Church in England instead of the Pope. Thomas refused. Eventually, after a kangaroo court condemned him to death, Thomas stated with stellar clarity, “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality” (meaning the Pope). And among the things he said just before he was executed, he made this statement: “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s servant first.”

Thomas witnessed with his death to the words of today’s Gospel, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” King Henry did the opposite. He wanted what belonged to God to be rendered unto himself. He wanted to subject the authority of God to his own authority. The Pope was not the head of the Church by his own will, but by the authority of Christ: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” Henry wanted to build his own Church and, while retaining all the ceremonies, liturgies and external trappings of the Church, he effectively emptied it of authenticity by stealing it from Christ. And all because the Pope would not grant him the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In other words, the motive behind all this, for which Thomas More had to give his life, was Henry’s own personal preferences.

Our first reading today from the prophet Isaiah speaks of another king. He is known historically as Cyrus the Great, who lived between 600-530 BC. He extended his Persian empire to the point that it was the biggest empire of its kind up to that point in history. His tactical success was in allowing the lands he conquered to continue with their own customs, language and religions. But Isaiah makes it clear that the real reason he was successful was because God himself favoured him. What is interesting, if not astounding, is that this prophecy of Isaiah was written 120 years before Cyrus was born. And it was written in relation to the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and Jerusalem in 587 BC and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. Cyrus conquered Babylon and, in 538 BC, he knowingly fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah by allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple. That’s why the Isaiah reading says of Cyrus, “It is for the sake of my servant Jacob, of Israel my chosen one, that I have called you by your name.” In other words, it was God who gave Cyrus his empire so that Cyrus would send the Jews back to reconstruct the Temple, the place of worship of the living God.

Cyrus, a pagan king, willingly bows to the authority of God. Henry, a Christian king, usurps that authority. Human authority only functions properly when it does not undercut the authority of God. To undercut God leads to chaos, as the book of Genesis already tells us: to murder, division, the subversion of order, the perversion of the truth, the destruction of relationships. The innocent is persecuted as guilty and the guilty exalted as innocent. Now, submission to the authority of God does not mean that religion must dictate politics. Politics and the exercise of public office in general are intended to promote the common good of all citizens. When, however, public authority begins to usurp the authority of God by interfering in the moral order which God has written into our human nature, then it is overstepping its remit. When, for example, public authority assigns to itself the authority to legislate on matters related to the beginning and end of life, marriage and sexuality, the freedom of the exercise of religion, etc., as if they were things which can be determined by a majority vote or by ideological preference, then Caesar is taking to itself what belongs to God. Of course, there are certain aspects of these things which require public regulation, but government’s role is not to legislate, for example, a vision of marriage or to define religion.

Not everyone believes in God, of course. But the point can be made another way. No-one, whether believer or not, would consider as serious for a minute that a parliamentary majority could abolish the fundamental laws of mathematics or physics. It would be laughable to propose and vote on a law which stated that cancer was no longer an illness. In other words, there are basic givens in reality and in nature which must be accepted and defended out of sheer logic, if nothing else. When Jesus says to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, He is the first, and possibly the only, religious leader in history to recognize that there is a sphere of responsibility proper to secular power. In terms of the Christian perspective, and remembering King Cyrus, it is God Himself who has established the secular order. But Jesus is also saying to Caesar: don’t take what belongs to God, because in the end you belong to God, too. Caesar must rule in a way which honours, rationally and logically, the order which God Himself has written into our human nature.

And what is true of public authority is also true of private authority. No-one in any relationship of responsibility for another person can assume power over that person in a way that is proper to God. No husband or wife can lord it over their spouse. No father or mother can act as God in relation to their children. It is the ultimate dependence of each of us on God which establishes and protects our personal dignity and sets a fair playing field for respectful social relations, in the family and beyond. Without reference to God, or to the nature of reality He has created, human beings easily become tyrants over one another, leading to abuse of authority and to social disengagement. If there is no ultimate authority, all other authorities will jostle to assert themselves, and that includes the most destructive of all which is when a person recognises no authority other than themselves. Someone like that neither gives to Caesar nor to God. They just don’t give; they only take.

So, what do we give to Caesar? We give what is required for healthy social coexistence. If laws are passed which interfere in matters belonging to God, we must do our part to argue and act for their repeal, which may include conscientious objection. What do we give to God? Our very selves, our faith in action, our love in good works, our persevering hope in Christ’s return at the end of our lives and at the end of time, when all Caesars will be judged. We can also dedicate to God in our hearts whatever we give to Caesar because we know that in being upright citizens we are being obedient to Christ.

Isaiah attributes the following words to God: “I am the Lord, unrivalled; there is no other God besides me … apart from me, all is nothing.” If these words are true, and they are, it is only logical and rational that we give everything to God – so that we don’t end up with nothing. The Lord loves us with all His being. To return the same, as did Thomas More, does not mean that we love others or the world any less. To paraphrase Thomas: we live as Caesar’s good servants, but as God’s servants first.