It happens every 12 years.
Our three-year cycle of Sunday readings and our four-year election cycle line up so that, on a Sunday just a few weeks before a presidential election — that is, this weekend — we have before us the Gospel of Caesar’s Coin (Matthew 22: 15-21).
No, this Gospel does not mean that Jesus believed in the separation of church and state. It should be obvious to us that such categories and distinctions did not exist in the times of Tiberius Caesar Augustus. Furthermore, the Gospel is a starting point for considerations of how people of faith are to act in civil society — but it is only a starting point.
When Jesus asked to see a coin for the payment of the tax in question, he was essentially demonstrating the insignificance of the emperor’s desire to collect this tax. Jesus is saying, “His image is on the coin, so give him his coin, if that’s all he wants.”
Jesus then says to give to God what belongs to God. And isn’t that everything? No human heart has separate “church” and “state” chambers. Our faith must move us to shape a society which is human in the best sense of that word.
When John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, he spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and made his case that America had nothing to fear from a Catholic president. In so doing, he noted that it was “apparently necessary to state … not what church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.” It was unfortunate that Kennedy found himself using language which made it seem as if religious faith were a merely private matter.
As a teenager, when I was following the news of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions on abortion, I read in this publication (then called The Western Catholic) a speculation that personhood for the unborn would soon be recognized, just as the personhood of African Americans was recognized only a few years after the horrendous 1857 decision in Dred Scott vs. Sandford. I thought the analogy was sound. With time I have come to recognize that the issue of the unborn contains complications all its own.
How did our nation reach the point that we could recognize personhood and citizenship for African Americans? We know that a civil war was part of the mix. But in addition, people of various religions, various brands of Christianity, and people who professed no religion, made common cause to abolish the slavery which to them was an obvious and intolerable evil.
The potential for common cause today is often thwarted by those who say, “You are trying to impose your private religious beliefs on me.” Progress in securing human rights and dignity is never a matter of being closed up in one’s own system but is rather a process of discovering that there are common values which can be agreed upon across seeming boundaries of thought. Someone once said that “jaw-jaw” is better than “war-war.”
I close by noting the death in Argentina on Sept. 30 of Joaquin Lavado, better known as “Quino,” whose comic strip of the 1960s and ‘70s, Mafalda, remains a joy and an inspiration. If your house plant hasn’t bloomed after you have given it water, light, and fertilizer, Mafalda’s shout, “Spring is here,” is effective. The plant just needed information.