We all make decisions; we all make choices. Sometimes we make good choices. Sometimes we make bad choices. A friend of mine and his wife adopted three young children. That statement should make the Catholic heart beam. It is a heroic act of virtue to take on responsibility to raise three young children who come from a difficult place. It takes great grace to welcome three strangers into your heart and love them like they are your own. But this is not a happy story.
My point today is not to celebrate my friend and his wife or to describe the successes of their family, although they certainly deserve it. Today, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the children’s mother.
The adoption effort was a long process and there were many choices made. There were no fathers in the picture and the mother had a long history of drug abuse. The mother made the choice to give the children up for adoption in hopes that they would have a better life without her than they would with her.
Think about that for a moment, because it’s tragic: a mother who is in such a bad place because of a long path of choices and decisions that she decides her children are better off without her than they are with her. And to the best of my ability to discern, she was right.
The children were adopted. Years passed. The youngest child, who was an infant at the time of adoption, is now starting school. Of course the mother wanted to see her children… to have some sort of relationship with them, even if she couldn’t raise them. And my friends were open to that, with only one condition: she had to be clean. No drugs. In short, she had to make the hard choices and decisions to overcome her addiction.
And that brings us to last Friday. I wish I could tell you there was a happy reunion. There was not. The children’s biological mother’s mortal remains were found under a bridge off I‑35, and the cause of death was a drug overdose.
Choices and decisions. These are core to who we are. Consider one of our religious sisters – what makes her different than the mother I just described? Biological and physical differences are minor; the real difference is the series of choices and decisions that carried them through life to the place they are now. You could perhaps argue that environment plays a key role, and to some extent it does. But when you talk about environment all you really mean are the choices and decisions made by previous generations that still impact us today, just as our choices and decisions will impact future generations.
And what is the difference between the religious sister and the deceased mother? Jesus loves them both equally, and so you and I should also. To do any less is to fail Jesus and the call he makes to us. I would argue that in our religious sisters, you see a shining example of the result of the culture of life while in the deceased mother, you see a tragic victim of the culture of death.
What does any of this have to do with today’s Gospel? Everything. Today’s Gospel is all about choices and decisions, and the importance of rightly choosing. In today’s Gospel, we see played out a battle of the culture of death against the culture of life. This is a battle as old as man, and a battle we will all fight until God calls us to our eternal home.
It has been argued that today’s Gospel gives us license to make decisions in our business life, or in our social life, or in our political life that are counter to the decisions we would make in our religious life. Such an argument is entirely wrong. Firstly, because to even pose the question necessitates fragmenting ourself into a collection of competing interests, which is an absurd proposition. We are all of us human beings and as such we have one life. We aren’t computers with a collection of programs all competing for runtime. We have one life, and it should be lived for life… not for death.
Second, the argument depends on there being any case where something can be given a higher priority than God Himself. There is no difference between living a life for God and living a life for the culture of life. Likewise, supporting the culture of death means acting against God, and that is never a moral act.
The Pharisees think they will trick Jesus. If He supports paying taxes, He supports a Roman occupation of the Holy Land and He supports a foreign, and pagan, emperor. Not a good look for a Messiah. If he doesn’t support paying taxes, then he’s a rebel out to tear down the government and the Romans will do the Pharisees’ dirty work for them. It’s a no-win situation.
Of course, Jesus wins.
He turns the tables on the Pharisees. He asks to see the coin with which the taxes are paid and the Pharisees have no trouble producing it. They have it ready at hand. Their argument is beginning to crack at the seams.
Jesus asks who’s picture is on the coin and the Pharisees respond that it is Caesar’s. Their question had to do with the lawfulness in terms of God’s law in paying taxes, but here they are with a coin that depicts a person deified by the pagans. A graven image and a pagan symbol is certainly counter to the law of God. Their argument is beginning to crumble.
And when Our Lord tells them to give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and unto God what belongs to God, their argument is completely destroyed. He isn’t telling them there is a valid division between their political life and their religious life; He is telling them exactly the opposite. He is telling them that nothing is more important than their religious life. Precisely the same is true for you and me.
Jesus didn’t give us wiggle room to say, “The Church teaches this but I think that.” What we are called to do is to live our life – our one, unified life – for Our Lord and to always make our choices and decisions in such a way that we advance the Kingdom of God and never support a culture of death.
Let’s revisit the children’s biological mother for just a moment. I would never presume to judge the state of another person’s soul. I want to make that absolutely clear. However, I understand intellectually that in a life that ends with a drug overdose under a bridge, bad decisions were made along the way. Now, I don’t know what any of those decisions might have been. Everything I know about that mother I have told you today.
Yet I also know that the mother made three choices for life – one for the birth of each of her children – and three sacrificial choices in love: to give each of them up so that they might have a better life than she had. And there is great merit in each of those choices, because they were made in love for life. That is precisely what God calls each one of us to do.