BY: Fr. Robert DeLeon Csc

Matthew 22:15-21
There are few of us, I’d imagine, who are wholly unconcerned about what others think of us, completely deaf to the shouts of popular culture about what to wear, what to drive, what to listen to, what to read. There are few of us, I’d imagine, who are entirely able to disregard the passing concerns of the day so that we might focus on things more important, more vital, more eternal. I remember such a person, though, a fellow high school teacher who was just this, though others less attuned termed him innocent, naïve, or just “out of it”.

Hired to teach freshman social studies, Matt, with wife and two daughters at home counting on him for sustenance, came to us with just two years teaching experience. A small man, beaming smile and crooked necktie his hallmark, Matt was always in a rush. There were frequent sightings as he zipped down a long school corridor, crooked necktie floating on the breeze, briefcase banging rhythmically against his thigh, edges of papers peeking from the closed case.

Indeed, Matt seemed very like his freshmen students in both physical appearance and inward disposition.

He became an overnight legend when, in his rush to get to school one spring morning, he nearly got arrested for criminal trespass. Hard to believe, but Matt didn’t own a car. He figured he could always catch a ride to school with someone and thereby bypass a major expense, ever conscious that his family was struggling for more essential things. Shy by nature, Matt didn’t want to come right out and ask anyone for a ride, so he did the next best thing—he hitch- hiked to school everyday. The legend took birth when, in this middle-class community where many of the students old enough to drive had cars, here was a teacher who not only had no car but shamelessly hitch-hiked. Matt would be out there at roadside with his thumb in the air and irresistible smile on his face, confident that a fellow teacher or compassionate upperclassman would stop to pick him up—and each day someone did. Dashing up to the waiting vehicle, Matt would swing open the front door and slide in.

After many months of this and having experienced a multitude of drivers and cars, he got so good at it that the waiting car never really had to stop. Just slowing down to ten miles per hour allowed Matt the opportunity to make his daily dash and, once aboard, off they’d go to school. The fateful day of near arrest came on a morning when Matt stood too near a signal light. By springtime, he’d grown perhaps over- confident, trusting that any car that slowed down was a proffered ride. This trusting innocence nearly got him arrested, for when, on this morning, a car stopped right beside him, Matt just pulled open the door and hopped in. It was only when he’d settled himself that he realized that the driver, a middle-aged woman, had flung open her driver’s door, jumped out into the traffic and was screaming at the top of her lungs. Matt leaned over in his seat to see what the trouble might be, only then realizing that this car he’d commandeered belonged neither to fellow teacher nor willing student. In fact, a total stranger had merely stopped for the red light and Matt had hopped in.

Another time, he had been relating to his fellow teachers that his wife was having a hard time financially keeping their daughters clothed. The two girls were of an age where, it seemed, they were jumping sizes by the month. Several teachers with children a bit older than Matt’s brought in used clothing to assist them, but it never seemed to be enough. Then came the morning when Matt bounded into the teacher’s lounge before the start of classes praising God and the kindness of strangers for all the clothing that had appeared on his doorstep. Matt related how, during the past few days, his wife had opened the front door to find bags and boxes of clothing on the porch. Taking the clothing in and sorting it out, there seemed to be something in the assortment for everyone. The girls got dresses that really fit, Matt sported new neckties, and his wife discovered a beautiful bathrobe. What a windfall from heaven! Matt’s good fortune continued for a week or so until the Salvation Army caught up with him. It seems that Matt’s house was right next to a small shopping center, and in the corner of its parking lot stood a Salvation Army clothing collection bin. When the bin was filled to overflowing, donors wondered what to do with their cast-offs and, looking around, they spotted Matt’s porch. So they left their clothes there, sure that the needy would receive them.

The day’s gospel passage reminds us that there are the immediate concerns of the present and passing world as well as those of the future and eternal world. “Jesus said, ‘Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’” (Matthew 22:21) As I look back over the forty years that now separate my memories of Matt from my first encounter, I can see more clearly that he knew better than all of us what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God. His confidence that God would care for him and his family seemed naïve to us then. In the end, though, Matt always landed on his feet with that broad smile on his face and his tie just a bit askew. He was an unsettling reminder that perhaps the rest of us, neatly dressed and politely critical of him, were ourselves askew in where we’d placed our trust, in what we valued, in giving to Caesar what was God’s alone.

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