Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Theme: “Jesus said to them, ‘Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’” (Matthew 22:21)
By: Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“A minister decided that a visual demonstration would add emphasis to his Sunday sermon. Four worms were placed in four separate jars. The first worm was put into a container of alcohol. The second worm was put into a container of cigarette smoke. The third worm was put into a container of chocolate syrup. The fourth worm was put into a container of good clean soil. At the conclusion of the sermon, the minister reported the following results: the first worm in alcohol was dead; the second worm in cigarette smoke was also dead; the third worm in chocolate syrup was likewise dead; the fourth worm in good clean soil was alive. The minister asked the congregation, ‘What can you learn from this demonstration?’ A frail, elderly woman in the back pew quickly raised her hand and said, ‘As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t have worms.’” (Original source unknown)
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In the gospel passage we hear today, the Pharisees, full of treachery and trying to entrap Jesus, proposed a dilemma: how does a faithful, law-abiding Jew respect both the civil law and the divine law when the two seem to be opposed? Rather than attempt an answer to the puzzle, Jesus looks beyond their words to the intentions of their hearts, and seeing the evil therein, he says to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21) I suspect the Pharisees went away scratching their heads, wondering what his answer could mean.
Clearly, Jesus admonished them to distinguish between divine obligation and human obligation, rendering allegiance to God while respecting one’s obligation to support the human community. And as those long-ago Jewish leaders tried to make sense of an answer at once both simple and complicated, so are we left scratching our heads many centuries later. Consider another story that may serve to guide us:
“A churchgoer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. ‘I’ve gone for 30 years now,’ he wrote, ‘and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time, and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.’ This started a real controversy in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher: ‘I’ve been married for 30 years now.
In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this. They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today.’” (Original source unknown)
“What can you learn from this demonstration?” the pastor asked at the end of his sermon as he exhibited three dead worms and one still alive. A frail, elderly woman in the back pew quickly raised her hand and said, “As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t have worms.” Though she provided an answer so wrong that the red-faced pastor could only bluster, his frustration was quickly transformed to admiration when he had to admit that, though she seemed to know little about healthy nutrition or the care of worms, she knew where to come for spiritual sustenance, that back pew her steadfast anchor for more than fourscore years.
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