The incident related in today’s gospel (Mark 12: 13-17) touches on a topic we hear a lot about in this country, namely the separation of Church and state. Actually, those words: “separation of church and state” are not found in the Constitution. Here is what we find in our Constitution: Article Six of the U.S. Constitution states: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or pubic trust under the United States.” And the first amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
So although the words: “separation of church and state” are not found in the Constitution, those two statements and their interpretation by the Supreme Court have effectively mandated a separation of church and state.
That leads some people to say that we should not mix religion and politics, but that is not true. To do that would be to compartmentalize our lives. It would be like putting religion and politics in two separate boxes inside of us and think that they are not supposed to influence each other. The fact is that they do and they should.
That is part of what is going on in this wonderful exchange between Jesus and the group of Pharisees and Herodians who encounter Jesus. They are trying to catch Jesus in a trap. So they set up a question that, as they see it, will get him in trouble no matter which of the two possible choices he makes. In a way they are trying to trap Jesus into choosing whether they should give precedence to an earthly ruler or to God. Jesus’s response indicates that earthly governments and temporal leaders do have authority, have power—but as Jesus told Pilate when Pilate tells Jesus that he had power over Jesus’s life—he would have no power at all, if it were not given to him from above (John 19: 11).
When Jesus tells the group challenging him that they should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, what He is saying is that, Caesar (whoever Caesar is for us: be that a king/queen, emperor/empress or president/governor) this temporal, earthly ruler has power, but it is given to that person for the common good. When that person is doing things, leading in a way that promotes the common good, then we should listen to him/her, give them what belongs to them, as it were. However, if what that person is doing is not for the common good, then, we must obey the higher law which comes from God.
I heard a story that tells of a person coming before God after their time on this earth. God looks lovingly at the person and says: “where are your scars?” The person responds: “I don’t have any.” And God says: “wasn’t there anything worth fighting for??”
As we hear this wonderful exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians, we ask, we pray, that it serve as a reminder that politics and religion can never be separated and that the ultimate rule for our conduct on this earth is doing what our well-informed conscience tells us is right as we stand before God. A well-informed conscience knows what the Church teaches about morality, social justice…. May we appear before our God wearing that “scars” we received by the way we vote and the organizations we support fighting for what is right and just and for the common good.