The 1966 movie, “A Man For all Seasons,” is one of the most acclaimed films of all time. It garnered a host of awards including six academy awards for, among others, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.
The film is a study of the tension between King Henry VIII of England and his chancellor, Thomas More, at a time when Henry was breaking with the Catholic Church.
The break was not due to idealogical differences, but rather, to politics. Henry wanted to divorce his wife in order to remarry and secure an heir to the throne. But the Church does not recognize divorce and the pope would not allow a dispensation.
Henry’s solution was to break with Rome and declare himself supreme head of the Church in England. Thomas More refused to sign the act that made this law. This was not defiance but, as More maintained, it was silence. And it is his silence upon which hangs the tension of the story.
Eventually More is brought to trial for treason. After a sham trial he was sentenced to be executed. His last words before falling to the headsman’s axe are among the most memorable of any film.
“I am commanded by the King to be brief, and since I am the King’s obedient subject, brief I will be. I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Saint Thomas More has become a patron for all those put in the position of choosing between Church and State.
The question put to Jesus in today’s Gospel was not a question he was expected to answer. In the minds of the Pharisees and Herodians, there was no correct answer. The Pharisees were opposed to the tax while the Herodians favored it. In their narrow political view of the world, either answer would trap Jesus and make him an enemy of one side or the other.
But Jesus elevates the question from one of simple politics to one of justice.
“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” The original Greek text could be paraphrased as “pay back to Caesar what you owe Caesar and to God what you owe God.”
We owe the government, through the taxes we pay, for certain duties and tasks it performs for the common good. But what do we owe God who has given us everything? And how to we repay this debt?
The answer Jesus gave changed the world. No longer was blind obedience to civil authority enough. From that moment on, we have been expected to render unto Caesar only up to the point that by doing so conflicts with our rendering unto God.
Under the banner of tolerance and fairness, the secular world grows ever more hostile towards Catholic beliefs. We may very well one day be faced with choosing between God and Caesar. Should it come to that, let us pray for the grace that will help us make the right choice.