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On our human autonomy

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That rather amusing gospel episode where some leading Jews tried to entrap Christ by asking if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (cfr. Mt 22,15-21) brings to light this delicate question about the human autonomy we enjoy in our temporal affairs.

As Christ deftly answered their gotcha question, it was made clear that it was legitimate, even moral, to pay taxes to Caesar. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Christ asked them referring to the image in the coin used to pay taxes. When they replied, “Caesar’s,” he immediately told them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

We certainly enjoy a certain autonomy in our temporal affairs, like paying taxes to some public authorities. But we have to understand also that this autonomy comes also from God’s will for us. In other words, we can say that paying taxes to Caesar is also doing the will of God as we ought.

We have to strengthen our awareness of this truth of our faith that the autonomy we enjoy in our temporal affairs should have God as their beginning and end, their reason and purpose. Our autonomy should never be understood as something where God has nothing to do with it. Quite the contrary. The autonomy in our temporal affairs has God at its core.

Thus, right from the beginning of creation, God told our first parents that they could enjoy whatever they want in Eden, except for eating the fruit of a certain tree. They were given some freedom, some autonomy, but clearly according to God’s will that also contained certain limitations.

In fact, the original mandate God gave man through our first parents involved a certain exercise of autonomy. “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it,” he told them. (Gen 1,28) In other words, we have to be fruitful, etc., but understanding it as us being commanded by God. Thus, everything that we do should be done in obedience to God’s mandate first of all.

We should always have God in mind when we exercise our autonomy in our temporal affairs. This was also highlighted in that parable of the talents (cfr. Mt 22,15-21) where a man who was planning a journey left his property with his three servants, giving them different amounts of talents according to their capabilities, and clearly telling them to do business with what was given them.

As the parable showed, the first two servants who did business with what were  given to them were richly rewarded, while the one who just put the one talent given to him in a hole was also heavily punished.

We have to sharpen our awareness that everything we do here in life should be done freely, of course, but always with the knowledge that we are doing everything with God and for God.

We can never say that what we may be doing are just personal things of ours, or that they are just technical in nature, or meant only to achieve some earthly goals like income, production of some goods, power or fame. While these motives have their legitimate role to play, we have to understand that whatever we do is done because we are actually working for God.

And the ultimate purpose of our temporal affairs is to do God’s will which in the end is about achieving our own sanctification, our own redemption. That’s when we are truly productive and fruitful.*

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