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29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

“Give back to Caesar what belong to Caesar – and to God what belongs to

God.” What do you think that means? Well, you might say, it’s saying that

we have to both good citizens here on earth, and also citizens of heaven:

we have duties to our country and to the Lord. We have to be good citizens,

so that includes things like paying our taxes and not speeding, and we’re

also supposed to put God first in all things, which is why we are here

tonight/today. Job done. You can stop preaching now, Father.

But what about areas of overlap, or even conflict? A while ago, the French

President, Emmanuel Macron, didn’t like what one of the French Catholic

bishops had said: that the law of God takes precedence over the law of the

state when there is a conflict. Monsieur le president disagreed, saying that

in France, the law of the state is supreme. But he was wrong. Normally,

there is no conflict, but when there is, if the law is seriously and definitely

unjust, then we can, and indeed should, disobey it.

A classic example would be at the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the

Second World War, where “I was just following orders” was considered to

be no excuse. For something even more scary, take this quote from

Hermann Goering, one of the top men in the Nazi regime: “I have no

conscience. Adolf Hitler is my conscience.” From this it follows that any

state, if it makes a law or a rule of some sort that goes against human rights

and the moral teaching of the Church, then it can and should be ignored.

Since the Second World War, we also had this problem in Communist

countries. The state officially didn’t believe in God, and what happened as

a result was that the state tried to be God. Pictures of Jesus and Mary were

replaced with pictures of the dictator. Instead of God being the moral

authority and seeing everything you do, now it became the state, complete

with their network of spies. It was joked that after communism fell in East

Germany, those working in the secret service then got jobs driving taxis.

You didn’t need to tell them your address: just give the driver your name

and he’ll know where you live.

So, yes, even the state has its limits, and it’s not infallible either. But that’s

not an excuse for always ignoring the law.

The first reading, as it often is, was from the Old Testament, and so many

of the details don’t make much sense to us, especially all the different

names we sometimes struggle to pronounce, never mind remember whether

that is the name of a person or a city. Mesopotamia? It could be the name

of a place, or it could be a nickname for someone who is good at messing

things up. So, to decode the first reading a bit, the king, Cyrus, is not a Jew,

so it would have been surprising for a citizen of Israel to hear the Lord

referring to a pagan king as “his anointed”. But Cyrus still has a purpose

that God wants him to carry out (I quote):

“It is for the sake of my servant Jacob,

of Israel my chosen one,

that I have called you by your name,

conferring a title though you do not know me.”

The important message, as far as we are concerned, is that God can work

through all sorts of people – the end of communism wasn’t just brought

about by practising Catholics, although we certainly helped. God can also

work through the state, whatever the imperfections of the present


I said the state is not infallible, which it isn’t. So, what about the Church?

Well, the Church does teach, without error, the whole of what Christ taught,

and has the gift of infallibility from the Holy Spirit. But, that doesn’t mean

that individual priests, like myself, can’t get things wrong sometimes. Or

you might have misunderstood what I said. The teaching in the Catechism

of the Catholic Church is what you need to follow, but the way Father tries

to put it across during Mass might sometimes leave something to be

desired. And the Pope, whilst he does have the ability to infallibly clarify

disputed areas of the faith or morals by a solemn act, doesn’t have that all

the time. So if you were to ask him what the football scores were going to

be that evening, he might get it wrong, although that also wouldn’t be an

issue of faith or morals.

“Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to

God.” Otherwise, we could arrive at: “Adolf Hitler is my conscience”.

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