This saying uttered by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is probably one of the more controversial statements that Jesus made, second only to the oft-cited quote from Matthew 7:1, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.” It has caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people over the last 2000 or so years.
In the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-21, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and Herodians, strange bed-fellows to be sure. The Pharisees were experts in the Mosaic Law, and rigorist in conformity to its precepts, and the Herodians, a political faction, were supporters of Herod Antipas, the Roman-backed ruler of Galilee and Perea. These two groups had but one thing in common; hatred of Jesus and his followers. Together they were plotting to destroy Jesus, who was seen as a threat to their power and influence. Thus we come to this scene in the Gospel of Matthew. The Pharisees and Herodians pose to Jesus a question, seeking to trap him. Buttering him up with platitudes they ask:
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (NABRE, Mt 22:16-17)
If Jesus were to answer “yes” to their question, then he would be a bad Jew, and the Pharisees would have cause against him. However, if Jesus answered “no” to their question, then he would be seen as a traitor to Caesar, and the Herodians would be after him for inciting disobedience and treason. I am sure that they thought, “Ha, we’ve got him, there’s no way out of this one.” But they were mistaken. Jesus is far to deft to fall into their poorly thought out trap.
Often the truth takes the form of absolutes, “either… or…” Either there are 100 senators in the US Senate, or there are not 100 senators. A child in the womb is either a human person, or he is not; it cannot be had both ways. However, more often than not the truth takes the form of “both… and…” One can be both a good American citizen, and a good Catholic. In pursuit of the truth both faith and reason are necessary. When considering the truth, it is also not merely a matter of subjective opinion, it is objective. The truth does not change based on FoxNews opinion polls or the whims of one or another politician.
Truth also exists in a hierarchy. There are some truths that are more fundamental than others, that are more important than others. For example, it may be true that there are six candle sticks on the high altar, but that is just an observation, and has no real bearing on how one lives his life. The truth that God is the creator of all things, the heavens and the earth, however is a fundamental truth upon which many other truths rely. The moral truth that human life, that personhood, begins at conception is the most fundamental moral truth, because without life no other rights can exist. The founders of our nation understood this when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” One cannot have liberty without life, and cannot pursue happiness without life or liberty. There is a hierarchy to these fundamental rights.
When it comes down to it, truth cannot be negotiated or compromised. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” (NABRE, Jn 14:6) If being Christian means being part of the body of Christ, living in Christ, then one must abide in the truth. To fail at this means that we can have no part in Him. Lies and falsehood have no place in the Kingdom of God. The truth is so important that many Christians have even been martyred for it. One such saint is St. Thomas More.
Witness to Truth: St. Thomas More
Sir Thomas More was Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, and was both a trusted advisor and friend of the king. When Henry sought to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, in order to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the second marriage. He also would not sign the Oath of Supremacy, which acknowledged King Henry VIII as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, an action considered to be treasonous and punishable by death. In Act II, Scene 6 of the play (later made into a film), “A Man for All Seasons,” Sir Thomas is confronted by his good friend the Duke of Norfolk, Archbishop Cranmer (the Archbishop of Canterbury), and Cromwell, all of whom are trying to convince him to sign the Oath. The scene plays out like this:
CROMWELL: (Quickly) You do have objections to the Act?
NORFOLK: (Happily) Well, we know that, Cromwell!
MORE: You don't, my lord. You may suppose I have objections. All you know is that I will not swear to it. From sheer delight to give you trouble it might be.
NORFOLK: Is it material why you won't?
MORE: It's most material. For refusing to swear, my goods are forfeit and I am condemned to life imprisonment. You cannot lawfully harm me further. But if you were right in supposing I had reasons for refusing and right again in supposing my reasons to be treasonable, the law would let you cut my head off.
NORFOLK: (He has followed with some difficulty) Oh yes.
CROMWELL: (An admiring murmur) Oh, well done, Sir Thomas. I've been trying to make that clear to His Grace for some time.
NORFOLK: (Hardly responds to the insult; his face is gloomy and disgusted) Oh, confound all this . . . (With real dignity) I'm not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don't know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names . . . You know those men! Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?
MORE: (Moved) And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas?
MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one.
CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question?
CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty and sign.
MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.
CROMWELL: (Leaping up, with ceremonial indignation) Then you have more regard to your own doubt than you have to his command!
MORE: For myself, I have no doubt.
CROMWELL: No doubt of what?
MORE: No doubt of my grounds for refusing this oath. Grounds I will tell to the King alone, and which you, Master Secretary, will not trick out of me.
Sir Thomas ultimately refused to cave into the pressure of his family and friends, unwilling to sign his name to a lie, and for this he lost his head. Among his last words he said, “I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” Sir Thomas More died a martyr for truth.
Contrast St. Thomas More with Pontius Pilate. Pilate, when confronted with the choice of executing Jesus knew him to be innocent.
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (NABRE, Jn 18:37-38)
He found no crime in him, but giving into political pressure, he washed his hands of responsibility, and had Jesus crucified anyways. Knowing he was wrong he took the politically expedient path over that of truth.
Election 2014: The Truth and You!
In a few weeks the 2014 mid-term election will take place, and many will head to the polls to vote for the candidates of their choice. Some might ask themselves, why is a priest addressing the election in a homily? What business does the Church have in the election? What about separation of Church and State? The answer is simple, the Church has every right, and even the duty, to address issues at stake in elections. I have a duty to preach the truth, and to encourage all Christians to consider the most important issues when voting. “Separation of church and state” is a phrase that has been misused for too long. This phrase, first written by President Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, reads:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
Jefferson was assuring the Danbury Baptist Association that the government would not interfere in matters of the Church. This phrase has too often been turned around to suggest that the Church and clergy have no business commenting on matters pertaining to government. Some say that everyone has “freedom to worship” in their own church, but influence of the church ends at the doors; there is no place for the church in the public square. This is nonsense and there are countless examples to the Church’s appropriate engagement with politics and the public square. Pope St. John Paul II did not shy away from speaking out against the evils of Communism in his own country of Poland, or elsewhere in the world and because of his influence the iron curtain fell.
Some issues are more important than others. The fundamental right to human life from conception to natural death comes first. While there are indeed many other issues of importance to be considered, like feeding the hungry, the death penalty, jobs for the unemployed, and care for the living, if we fail to protect the most vulnerable among us, the unborn, none of these issues even matter. Abortion is the worst of evils and cannot be put on the same plain as other issues. Many Christian, and even Catholic, politicians claim to be “personally pro-life,” but argue that they “can’t force their beliefs on others.” This is a cop-out, a lie, a compromise with evil. The truth is that human life begins at conception is not a belief to be forced on others, it is an unquestionably, scientific and moral truth.
When Jesus said, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” he acknowledged that there are some matters that rightly belong to government. There can be legitimate debate over taxes, spending, labor laws, the environment, use of the military, etc… Faithful Catholics can even disagree on these issues, and not be at odds with the Church. But what we need to remember is that everything ultimately belongs to God, including Caesar. When it comes to the sanctity of life there can be no negotiation. Human life belongs to God, not to government. Polls cannot change this fundamental truth. Don’t forget this when you go to vote on November 4th. Know where the candidates stand on the most fundamental issues and vote accordingly.
No candidate is perfect, and just as St. Thomas More said that he could not judge the hearts of the men who signed the Oath of Supremacy, we cannot judge the hearts of politicians who vote to fund Planned Parenthood, or to expand abortion “rights,” but we can, and should, judge actions. Vote to uphold the truth, and don’t vote for candidates that support abortion. St. Thomas More was willing to die rather than give into a lie. Jesus, “the way, the truth, and the life” died for us in sacrifice for the truth. This November VOTE FOR LIFE!
 Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (New York: Vintage International, 1990), 131-133.