Once there was a woman who tried very hard to be a good and successful mother to her young son. She read up on all the latest parenting techniques, including one which we might call “defined choices.” Instead of simply telling her son what to do, she liked to give him a sense of participation in the decision-making process, even as she actually set the agenda and maintained control of the process. She didn’t say, “Billy, go clean your room right now”; rather, she’d say, “Billy, do you want to clean your room right now, or after supper? When do you want to do your homework: now, or when your favorite television program is on? Which do you want to do: take your medicine now, or at bedtime?” This usually worked well, but the mother didn’t realize how much her son had absorbed until one day when the two of them were passing a toy store while walking through a shopping mall. Billy said, “Mom, which do you want to buy me: this football, or that new video game?”
When someone else is defining our choices, we may not have as much freedom as it appears. That’s usually how it has to be in parenting, but not in all other aspects of life—and especially not when it comes to living out our faith. God completely respects our free will, and He’s completely honest with us—but the same cannot be said for the world. Our society often tries to define our values and our decisions in a way that leaves God out. As Christians, we must be aware of and on guard against this trap—for only in this way will we truly be able to give to God what is God’s.
The Pharisees and the other enemies of Jesus thought they had the perfect way to trap Him. “Lord,” they said,“ we have a simple yes or no question for You. Should we pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They thought to themselves, “If He says ‘yes,’ we’ll tell all the people that Jesus supports the Roman occupation of our country, and they’ll turn against Him. If He says ‘no,’ we’ll tell the Roman authorities He’s inciting rebellion, and they’ll arrest Him. Either way we win.” Jesus, of course, not only saw through their deception—He refused to play by their rules or let them define His choices. Instead, He responded, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s”—in other words, don’t merely settle for doing your duty in this world. Fulfill your earthly responsibilities, but even more importantly, fulfill your heavenly ones.
By reflecting on the coin mentioned in the Gospel—we can see that the world tries to limit and trap us, just as the Pharisees attempted to do to Jesus, by defining our choices. There are two choices, says the world: right side up or upside down. Which do you choose? Do you want to become rich and successful by working for someone else or by owning your own business? We’re supposed to say, “Wait a minute—there’s another side to this coin. Maybe God isn’t calling me to be rich—so whatever He chooses for me, that’s what I want.” The world challenges us: Are you going to fulfill your needs by becoming popular and famous or living a life of privacy and comfort? We’re supposed to say, “There’s still another possibility: I choose to fulfill my needs by following Jesus, no matter what that may mean.” The world challenges us: Which are you going to do on Sunday morning? Are you going to get up early and go play golf or sleep in, and then spend the day watching football? We’re supposed to say, “There’s another side to this: I’m going to Mass first, then I’ll go about my other activities.” The world challenges us: Are you going to recognize a woman’s right to an abortion or are you going to keep your intolerant anti-abortion views to yourself, and at least have the decency not to impose your morality on others? We’re supposed to say: “Neither; as Christians, we’re going to be publicly pro-life, and we’re going to work lovingly and persistently to help our society become pro-life, too.” The world challenges us: Are you going to give up your silly religious beliefs or at least keep them to yourself and not inflict them on others? We’re supposed to say: “We’re not going to stay within those limits; Jesus told us to spread the Gospel, so we’re going to take our religion seriously, and try to convert others by our good example.” All the time, often without us realizing it, the world tries to limit our choices, telling us we can have the top of the coin or the bottom. Jesus wants to teach us to look for God’s values, not the world’s. His way of righteousness is the path that leads not only to freedom, but also to holiness—for when we turn this over we not only have the other side of the coin, but also a halo.
On World Mission Sunday, the Church seeks contributions from its members to help continue the spread of the Gospel—especially in the poor and disadvantaged countries of the Third World. The world challenges us: You’re in charge of your own money, so are you going to spend it on yourself this way or that way? By now we should know the answer: “We are stewards of God’s gifts, and this means using some of the blessings He has given us to help other people come to know Him, too.” In so many ways the world tries to deceive us and trap us—and it’s our duty to be on guard, to break free of the limits society tries to place upon practicing our Christian faith, and to keep on looking at a situation until we see it as God does. I don’t claim it’s easy, or that the perfect solution to all our moral questions and difficulties will always appear suddenly and magically. Living the Christian life is a challenge, and sometimes even a struggle—but with God’s help we can succeed. This will require trusting in Jesus, making and renewing a genuine commitment to following Him, and preparing ourselves for temptations and spiritual and moral combat. After all, when Jesus gave the perfect answer to the Pharisees’ challenge, it probably wasn’t something He fortunately thought of on the spur of the moment; the answer came to Him because of the many hours He had spent praying to His heavenly Father. In the same way, the more we allow God into the center of our lives, the easier it will be for us to see clearly, to choose wisely, and to exchange the coin belonging to Caesar for a halo that lasts forever.