Thinking about the relationship of Caesar and God, religious faith and secular authority, is important. It helps us sort through our different duties as Christians and citizens. But on a deeper level, Caesar is a creature of this world, and Christ’s message is uncompromising: We should give Caesar nothing of ourselves. Obviously we’re in the world. That means we have obligations of charity and justice to the people with whom we share it. Patriotism is a virtue. Love of country is an honorable thing. As Chesterton once said, if we build a wall between ourselves and the world, it makes little difference whether we describe ourselves as locked in or locked out.
|Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivers the homily at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., on July 4. CNS photo
But God made us for more than the world. Our real home isn’t here. The point of today’s Gospel passage is not how we might calculate a fair division of goods between Caesar and God.
In reality, it all belongs to God and nothing — at least nothing permanent and important — belongs to Caesar. Why? Because just as the coin bears the stamp of Caesar’s image, we bear the stamp of God’s image in baptism. We belong to God, and only to God.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul tells us, “Indeed religion” — the RSV version says “godliness” — “with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it.”
True freedom knows no attachments other than Jesus Christ. It has no love of riches or the appetites they try to satisfy. True freedom can walk away from anything — wealth, honor, fame, pleasure. Even power. It fears neither the state, nor death itself.
Who is the most free person at anything? It’s the person who masters her art. A pianist is most free who — having mastered her instrument according to the rules that govern it and the rules of music, and having disciplined and honed her skills — can now play anything she wants.
The same holds true for our lives. We’re free only to the extent that we unburden ourselves of our own willfulness and practice the art of living according to God’s plan. When we do this, when we choose to live according to God’s intention for us, we are then — and only then — truly free.
This is the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. It’s the freedom of Miguel Pro, Mother Teresa, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and all the other holy women and men who have gone before us to do the right thing, the heroic thing, in the face of suffering and adversity.
This is the kind of freedom that can transform the world. And it should animate all of our talk about liberty — religious or otherwise.
I say this for two reasons. Here’s the first reason. Real freedom isn’t something Caesar can give or take away. He can interfere with it; but when he does, he steals from his own legitimacy.
Here’s the second reason. The purpose of religious liberty is to create the context for true freedom. Religious liberty is a foundational right. It’s necessary for a good society. But it can never be sufficient for human happiness. It’s not an end in itself.
In the end, we defend religious liberty in order to live the deeper freedom that is discipleship in Jesus Christ. What good is religious freedom, consecrated in the law, if we don’t then use that freedom to seek God with our whole mind and soul and strength?
Today, July 4, we celebrate the birth of a novus ordo seclorum — a “new order of the ages,” the American era. God has blessed our nation with resources, power, beauty and the rule of law. We have so much to be grateful for. But these are gifts. They can be misused. They can be lost. In coming years, we’ll face more and more serious challenges to religious liberty in our country. This is why the Fortnight for Freedom has been so very important.
And yet, the political and legal effort to defend religious liberty — as vital as it is — belongs to a much greater struggle to master and convert our own hearts, and to live for God completely, without alibis or self-delusion.
The only question that finally matters is this one: Will we live wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ? If so, then we can be a source of freedom for the world.
If not, nothing else will do.