In 1961 the novel, Catch 22, was published, and in 1970 it was made into a movie. Let me share with you what the author meant by a Catch 22 situation. The novel takes place during World War II, and a man named Yossarian is a bomber pilot. A pilot has to fly a given number of missions, and then he is allowed to go home. However, each time the bomber would reach the magic number, he would be foiled by Colonel Cathcart, who would retroactively raise the number. So the pilot was caught in what the author famously called a “Catch 22” situation—an unwinnable situation.
This is what Jesus’ opponents try to do in today’s gospel reading, setting up a question that they believe is unwinnable, a Catch 22 question, like “Tell me, Sir, have you stopped beating your wife?” Think about that: you lose simply by answering. The problem for Jesus was that if he said it was lawful to pay the tax, he would lose many of his supporters, who considered the occupation by the Romans unlawful. On the other hand, if he said that the tax should not be paid, then he could be arrested for breaking the law and inciting a riot.
Jesus’ answer, then, is ingenious; he provides an answer without getting trapped…but he also makes people think. I believe we all know what our obligations to Caesar are. I believe, for example, that most of us are honest, and that we pay our share of taxes. We may not like it, but we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
But what about the other half of Jesus’ answer, the part that should make us think. What does it mean to give to God what is God’s. One answer can be found in a concise verse of Scripture that we find in the Old Testament prophet Micah 6:8—“You have been told, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
In order to flesh this out a bit, let me share two stories. The first is about Martin Luther King, Jr., who during a speech in 1967, provided one way of discerning what is right and good. Dr. King said, “Cowardice askes the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency askes the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’”
A second story is one I think of when it comes to humility. It will probably be different for you, but for me it presents a powerful lesson. After a large dinner at one of Hollywood’s stately mansions, a famous actor entertained his guests with stunning readings of Shakespeare. Then, as an encore, he offered to accept a request. A shy, older priest asked if he knew Psalm 23. The actor said, “Yes, I do and I will give it on one condition: that when I am finished you recite the same psalm.”
The priest was quite embarrassed, but consented. The actor then did a beautiful rendition: “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want…” The guests applauded loudly when the actor finished, and then it was the priest’s turn. He got up and said the same words, but this time there was no applause, just a hushed silence and the beginnings of a tear in several eyes.
The actor savored the silence for a few moments and then stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, I hope you realize what happened here tonight. I knew the words to the psalm, but this priest knows the Shepherd.” It took great humility for the actor to say what he did, and it speaks to my heart as a priest.
May we all learn to give to God what is God’s: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.