The villains in todays gospel reading are the Pharisees. In many respects, this movement within Judaism was the best of
its various branches. It had an honored place in Jewish history. It was closer to the spirit of the Mosaic Covenant than the
others movements within Judaism. Much of what Jesus taught was consistent with the best teachings in the Pharisee tradition.
However, the failures of many Pharisee leaders to live the spirit of Judaism were particularly obvious and disappointing.
They had become proud, self-righteous and respect for Gods commandments had become a legalistic obsession devoid of spirit.
Jesus repeatedly challenged them for their hypocrisy.
It is terribly uncomfortable when we are brought face to face with our failings and weakness. Often we feel threatened
by the truth we have been shown and deny it. When Jesus made it clear that he was talking about them, challenging them to
change. The Pharisee leadership could no longer deny their failures. So they grew angry at the one who spoke the truth. They
planned to trap Jesus into saying something that would turn either the people or the Roman government against him.
Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to GodCaesar's image and name on coin, so coin belonged to Caesar.
We are made in God's image and likeness, we are named Christians by baptism. We belong to God, we bear Christ's name.
This Gospel account is not about paying taxes or the relationship between Church and State. Rather it is about the competing
claims that are laid upon us. We have so many commitments, so many obligations that at times it is hard to keep up with
Young people have school, Scouts, sports, chores to help out at home, homework, friendships to maintain, books to read,
and favorite television programs to watch. That doesn't even count time for the Internet and video games. Of course, there
is also Sunday Mass and religious education to fit in, along with morning and night prayers. If you are an altar server, then
don't forget about that commitment! It's a miracle if time for meals can be found in such a heavy schedule.
Now the young people's schedule is easy compared to most adults. We have appointments with clients/customers/patients and
meetings with fellow workers. There is the daily commute and dropping kids off to school, sports and activities. We have civic
responsibilities and other commitments that make demands on us. There are repairs to make around the house and the daily chores
of preparing meals, doing the dishes. Don't forget to help the children with their homework, say hello to the spouse, feed
and clean the pets, mow the lawn, help with the fundraisings for the scouts, the soccer team, the civic group of which you
are a member, and the auto-lotto or other parish fundraising. Of course, there is Sunday Mass, practice for the choir or attending
the parish committee meeting of which you are a member. Oh for a few minutes of peace and quiet, so you can read the Bible
or spend some time in prayer!
Just thinking about all these commitments and responsibilities makes me tired!
Jesus tells us Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to Godwhat we saw a little bit earlier is that
we belong to God! God lays claim not to an hour on Sunday morning and a few minutes of prayer on rising and going to bedbut
to our entire life! Every fiber of our being, every moment of our life belongs to God!
How can I respond to God's claim on my life? I have responsibilities! I have commitments! After all Jesus also said "Give
to Caesar what belongs to Caesar"
Novelist Victor Hugo wrote the book Les Miserables. The main character in this story, Jean Valjean, was sent to
prison as a youth because he stole a loaf of bread with which to feed his sister and himself. Eventually, he escapes but is
pursued by the police. He seeks shelter from a parish priest who feeds and cares for him. In return Jean steals a set of silver
candlesticks from the parish. The local police recognize the candlesticks and figure that the stranger has no right to them.
He is arrested and brought back to the priest. The police ask if the candle sticks belong to the parish and if they were missing.
The priest explained that the candle sticks belonged to the parish but that he had given them to the stranger. Since the police
didn't know that Jean Valjean was a fugitive, the let him go. He was astounded by kindness of the priest. The priest explained
that Christ had died on the cross in order to redeem us from sin. If Christ paid for our redemption with his life, certainly
a simple country pastor could offer up a pair of candlesticks to help the stranger realize that he was redeemed. Christ had
paid the price and now Jean Valjean realized that he belonged to Christ.
From that day forward Jean Valjean was a changed man. He built up a successful business. He was involved in the Church
and community. He had a niece for whom he was guardian. He was known as a gentle and saintly man who found no kindness too
much of a bother. Yet, it wasn't just his kindness. Every decision he made, every action he took rested on the single reality
that he belonged to God. God was not exiled to Sunday morning, kept in a prison just as Jean Valjean had been jailed. God
was present in every encounter he had with his neighbors, in every decision that he made. God was present because the basis
of all Jean Valjean's relationships was love. It was apparent in his self-less concern for the well-being of others and a
willingness to act on that concern. Love was the criteria by which all of his decisions were made. God was present because
if there is anything we can know of the unknowable God, according the John the Evnagelist, it is that God is love. Gods rightful
claim on every fiber of his being and every moment of his life was honored in all that he did. God was not just part of his
life, one competing claim among others. His life was lived in the light of Gods love and that light illumined all he did.
Christ reminds the Pharisees and us in today's Gospel that we belong to God, whether we focus on being made in the image
and likeness of God or whether we focus on being redeemed by Christwe are his! The challenge is to live this truth.