Matthew 22:15-21, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In my meditation, our readings seemed about leaders and where they stand relative to God, but somehow the playful Michael Buble appeared in my morning meditation, dancing to the tune of “But don’t forget whose taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be, save the last dance for me!” It was probably the way my unconscious translated Jesus’ command, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God, what is God’s!” It’s as if Jesus was telling us–okay, in this world, you may dance with all the different partners you wish to dance with, but hey, I’m THE partner, so you better save the last the dance for me!”
The question of course that Jesus answers is a Herodian’s entrapment question: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar?” The question lumps together in one a political loyalties question as well as a question of religious commitment. Choosing one over another necessarily creates trouble for the one being tested. But our Lord, never to be outdone in wisdom, holds the bull of the dilemma by the horns and fires away a response that forces his questioners into a bind for an answer: “Give unto Caesar, what is of Caesar, and give unto God, what is of God.” Now the Herodians have to make the choice.
For us who read or meditate on this Sunday Gospel, we just might have to examine this choice as an ongoing fundamental option that shapes our life’s many smaller choices. And pretty soon, we will realize that while we give Caesar what is due Caesar, we also remember that everything that is of Caesar is also creatures of God and thus, subject to God. And so the very conduct of Caesar’s affairs belongs to God to sustain and shape. God’s is the last dance after all.
These thoughts about Caesars and God, brought me back to one of my many walking tours of Rome, led by our usual guide, Fr Joe Quilongquilong, who was then also a graduate student living with me in Rome at that the time. In one of those Ignatian walks, we were on our way to the residence where the first companions stayed and did the so-called Deliberation of the First Fathers (the discernment that led them to form themselves into a Society of Jesus and also elected Ignatius as their first Superior General). We stopped briefly in a low-level ruins park located in a place called Largo Argentina.
Fr Joe initially explained that the name Largo Argentina has nothing to do the Latin American country called Argentina. Rather it had to do with silver or argento. The area was probably the place where the silversmiths lived and worked. But the more interesting detail was yet to come. Fr. Joe showed us a map of the low level ruins and to our delight, he pointed to a place somewhere where the present trams stopped and parked. He said, below that train stop is what remains of the Roman Senate. And then he points to the line in the inscription that says, this is the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated.
And of course Fr Joe explained how this low-level field was actually connected with the Foro Romano or the Roman Forum where all the seats of Roman Government of that time were laid out.
But the last line was “juiciest line” that would come from Fr Joe that afternoon. “Now, look at the park below. Look at the ruins. What do you notice?” And of course we all looked and saw that the ruins has become a sanctuary for cats. There were numerous cats which were probably pet cats were abandoned by their Italian former masters, and thrown into the park. And Fr. Joe said, “So the lesson of the day: Even the most powerful empires will fall and become mere sanctuaries for stray and abandoned cats.” Whew, a good lesson at relativity of even those that had been previously perceived as absolute power.
I guess apocalyptic visions of the downfall of empires and the total destruction of glorious temples when the end times come help us to recover a sense of perspective. No empire or power in this world, or wealth or property, no work or achievement, not even the best of friendships will last for eternity. Violence and calamities showed us as much–superstorms, and mega-earthquakes, and now this Corona Virus pandemic.And of course our memories are still filled with images of wanton and widespread destruction left by Supertyphoon Yolanda on the bigger part of the Visayan region, the super earthquakes and Marawi sieges in Mindanao, and and many other things will come and go, like beautiful wild flowers of the field, bloom and wilt away. This life and death cycle gives us a sense of the real importance of things we get preoccupied with, and what really remains as things of love which have eternal value. This sense of finitude, this facticity of life in this world in a sense forces us to acknowledge that really only God is our Principle and Foundation, and others assume value only relative to our supreme value for God our life’s foundation.
Rilke’s beautiful poem entitled “Autumn” helps illustrate our theme:
The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up, as if orchards were dying high in space. Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.” And tonight the heavy earth is falling away from all other stars in the loneliness. We’re all falling. This hand here is falling. And look at the other one. It’s in them all. And yet there is Someone, whose hands infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
When we sense some experience of fall or threat of destruction, let the moment be an occasion for falling into God’s hands. Let our many crises in life bring us back to the God who sustains us and will regather us into the glory of life eternal with the Father. And then we will hear Jesus singing with Buble, “Yes, come now darling. We’ve saved the last dance for me!” God Bless!
*image by Maksim Kaharlytski (courtesy of Pexels)