Sunday, October 16, 2011

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The oldest political trick in the book is to get your opponent to talk about anything else except the issues. We have seen this many times over the past year. They bring up something a candidate's pastor once said. They question a candidate's commitment to his or her family. Rumors are started about possible shady business dealings. All this in hopes of getting the opponent to be on the defensive. Then the press will focus on the candidate's weaknesses rather than his or her strengths. Little by little, support for the candidate begins to diminish as he or she is required to talk about everything else except the issues.

This is a tactic which the enemies of Jesus tried often. In one famous episode from the gospel recorded by Matthew, Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. By asking him whether or not Jews should pay taxes, they hoped to catch him in a trap. If Jesus said they should pay taxes, he would lose support among his followers who opposed the Roman occupation of Israel. If he said they shouldn't pay taxes, then the religious leaders would have cause to report him to the Roman authorities as an insurrectionist. Whichever way Jesus answered, his enemies hoped that he would have to keep explaining himself, digging himself into a deeper hole and losing support among the people.

As usual, though, Jesus is far more clever than his adversaries. His answer has become one of the most quoted verses from the Bible: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; but give to God what belongs to God."

When we hear Jesus' words, we have to ask ourselves: What exactly belongs to Caesar? What do we owe to our government and to our fellow citizens? We have a responsibility to pay taxes and follow the laws. Being blessed to live in a democracy, we also have a responsibility to vote and to voice our opinion. Along with that, we must study the issues facing our society and form our consciences so that our opinions are based on sound logic and good moral principles. All these elements go into being good and responsible citizens. God expects that of us, especially as he has blessed us with a country which values freedom so highly.

Too often, however, Jesus' words, "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's", are quoted by adversaries of the Church who try to tell us that religion has no place in political life. They are using that old political tactic of trying to keep us from talking about the issues. When they claim a wall of separation between Church and State, they hope that people of faith won't become involved in the national debate about abortion, homosexual marriage, the death penalty or stem cell research. They tell us that people of faith should keep their opinions to themselves. They dare to say that we have no right to voice our opinion because it is informed and motivated by faith. Sad to say, too often Christians have taken that criticism to heart and left their faith at the door when they entered the voting booth.

But, it is absolutely un-American to believe that someone has less of a freedom of speech because his or her ideas are informed and motivated by religious faith. As a country, we have fought to guarantee that each person have the freedom to voice their opinions no matter what their source or what their content. Should a person's beliefs and opinions be excluded because that person is a Catholic Christian? Why are the opinions of Catholics any different from the ideas proposed by environmentalists, animal rights supporters or business people? Like every other American, we have a right and a duty to witness to our faith even in the political arena.

And, the fact is that people of faith have always been a part of the political process in our country. In the last century, it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of faith, who led the fight to guarantee civil rights for all people regardless of race. In the nineteenth century, people of faith were among those who stirred the conscience of our nation to recognize the evil of slavery. And, many of the drafters of the constitution and forefathers of the country were informed and motivated by their faith to make America a place of freedom and opportunity. In this century, it is up to us now to take up the cause of justice and to witness to the dignity of every human person no matter how weak or how vulnerable.

As a church, we must never endorse a political candidate or a political party. We can never fall into the trap of partisan politics. But, we do have a right and a duty to speak to the issues facing the society in which we live, work and raise our children. Because of our faith, we have much to offer. We have insights regarding the dignity of the human person, the sacredness of human life, the importance of the family and the role of government in protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens. As Pope John Paul II said so often, as a Church we do not seek to impose our views but to propose them to society, to enrich the debate through the witness of our faith.

Governments come and go. Political leaders come and go. But, God's word endures forever. The Church has survived numerous governments, both good and bad, from the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages, through Nazism and Communism to the present day. As a community of faith we have a treasury of wisdom built up over those many centuries which we must share with the people of our day and use to strengthen our society. Let us pray that we will have the courage to speak the truth of the gospel even in the public arena and pray also for our leaders that they may be inspired by a vision of justice that will lead us to true peace.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

A man was dying. When he sensed that his life on earth was close to its end, he called his oldest son to his bedside. From a bag on the end table, he pulled out a simple wooden box with a carving of a rose on it. He handed it to his son explaining that it had been given to him by his father and that he wanted him now to keep it. He promised his son that, if he took good care of it, the box would change his life. The son wasn't quite sure what his father was talking about, but took the box anyway and brought it home.

In a few weeks, the father died. After the funeral, the son took the box intending to put it on the mantel above the fireplace in his living room. He cleared the pictures off the mantel and placed the box right in the middle. Standing back to look at it, he felt that something wasn't quite right. He noticed that the pictures hanging on the wall really didn't match the box on the mantel. So, he took down all the pictures and rearranged them. Things still didn't seem quite right. So, he decided to rearrange the furniture. He pushed the couch, the love seat and the recliner in different positions around the room until he found an arrangement that matched the box and the pictures on the wall. Looking back on all the work he had done, he thought about his father's words that, if he took good care of the box, it would change his life. He laughed to himself as he thought that, to make room for that little box, he had already changed his whole living room around. He wondered to himself in what other ways that little box which he had come to treasure would change his life.

We have all been given a gift by our God, a gift that will change us if we take good care of it. That gift is the gift of life. Each of us was created by God. Each of us belongs to him. And, God expects each of us to do great things with this gift of life.

Our life is the first gift that God gives us. Everything else God wants to give us depends on it. What good would all the treasures of earth be if we didn't have our life to enjoy it? What good would even faith, hope or love be if we weren't alive to receive them? Before God can give us anything else, he must first give us the gift of life.

That is why, as believers in Christ, we must always work to guarantee a right to life for all people from the time they are conceived until the time of their natural death. We never look at any human being - no matter how sick, no matter how deformed, no matter how needy - as a burden. Rather, we look at each person as a gift, a gift from God. And, if we take care of the most vulnerable among us - if we cherish their lives as a precious gift - it will surely change us for the better. Like the man in the story found out when he put the box in a prominent place in his home, we discover that caring for the lives of the needy will force us to clear away the things which don't really matter, like anxieties about our appearance or our status. It will help us to place the gift of life and the right to life at the center of our families and our society where it belongs.

In today's gospel, the people who are put in charge of the vineyard forget that it doesn't belong to them. They want to keep the vineyard and its produce for themselves. They want to do with it whatever they want without respecting the demands of its true owner. They eventually go so far as to kill the owner's son. They took the gift they were given - the vineyard - and forgot to whom it belonged. Instead of honoring and protecting the gift, they squandered it, and it resulted in their ruin.

Can we see a parallel with today's society? How have we treated the gift of life which has been entrusted to us? How have we taken care of the weak and needy in our society? Every year on this day - Respect Life Sunday - we ask these hard questions of ourselves and of our country. As we look to next year's election, these questions become even more pressing. Once we recognize life as a gift of God and every human life as made in God's own image and likeness, we can no longer fool ourselves that whether the unborn live or die is a personal choice. We can no longer kid ourselves that the lives of the innocent are ours to do with as we please. Otherwise, as a society, we risk the calamity that befell the men in today's gospel.

Each of us knows how precious our own lives are. We treasure the lives of our family members, our children and our friends. We strive to make of our lives something worthwhile and beautiful. And, we want to help enrich the lives of those we love and make our world a better place. Like the man in the story, we have embraced the gift of life, and it has changed us. On this day - Respect Life Sunday - let us renew our commitment to life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.