Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Repay To Caesar What Belongs To Caesar, And To God What Belongs To God.

Tuesday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
2 Peter 3:12-15a, 17-18
Wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens
will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire.
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.

Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot
or blemish before him, at peace.
And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned,
be on your guard not to be led
into the error of the unprincipled
and to fall from your own stability.
But grow in grace
and in the knowledge
of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
To him be glory now
and to the day of eternity. Amen.
The early Christians had high expectations that the Lord would come back to them very soon. As time passed, they began to realise that it might not be as soon as they had first thought, namely in their own lifetime. This is reflected in the way later books of the New Testament are written.

But even here in this relatively late book the anticipation is still there. We are even urged to hasten that day. How can we do this? By working harder to bring more people to know the Way of Christ, to share his vision of life and thus realise the full establishment of the Kingdom. We still have a long way to go!

The “day of the Lord”, the end of the world is visualised as utter destruction of all we know now but it will be replaced by “a new heaven and a new earth”, words taken from Isaiah and also used in the book of Revelation (21:1). This new world is the “home of righteousness”. There truth and goodness will dwell as unchanging and unchangeable elements. This will be a time when what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer - “your Kingdom come, your will be done” - will be fully realised.

For each one us, it is a reminder to lead lives “without stain or defilement” (words applied to Jesus in 1 Peter) and at peace with God. In this way, we are always prepared no matter what time the Lord decides to take us to himself. There is a lovely sentence here too: “Consider that our Lord’s patience is directed toward salvation.” This echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel that he has come not to condemn but to bring life.

There are warnings about being led astray by the “error of the wicked and the unprincipled”. In this case, the warning is against Gnostic teachers who held ideas which were in conflict with the Gospel. In our day too, there are many kinds of “wicked error” which can lead us far from the ways of truth, love and justice.

Instead, we are told to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”. To grow in grace is to open ourselves more and more to the experience of being loved by God. To grow in the knowledge of Jesus is not to know more about him but to grow into a personal and intimate relationship of mutual love.

This kind of knowledge is on a different plane altogether from the esoteric knowledge that the Gnostics proclaimed. In our own day, some come pretty close to it when they put an excessive emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. It is a modern version of Pharisaism. Jesus said that people would know true Christians not by their theology but by the love they show for each other, and especially for those in any kind of need. “By this will all know that you are my followers, that you have love one for another” (John 13:35) and “May they be completely one so that the world may know that you have sent and have loved them” (John 17:23).
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Psalm 90
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge
Before the mountains were begotten
and the earth and the world were brought forth,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You turn man back to dust, saying,
“Return, O children of men.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Seventy is the sum of our years,
or eighty, if we are strong,
And most of them are fruitless toil,
for they pass quickly and we drift away.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
Let your work be seen by your servants
and your glory by their children.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
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Mark 12:13-17
Some Pharisees and Herodians were sent
to Jesus to ensnare him in his speech.
They came and said to him,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion.
You do not regard a person’s status
but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
Should we pay or should we not pay?”
Knowing their hypocrisy he said to them,
“Why are you testing me?
Bring me a denarius to look at.”
They brought one to him and he said to them,
“Whose image and inscription is this?”
They replied to him, “Caesar’s.”
So Jesus said to them,
“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”
They were utterly amazed at him.
Possibly in response to the parable of the wicked tenants which we read yesterday, a delegation comes to confront Jesus. Their composition is rather unusual but proves the saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It would be hard to find two groups more ideologically opposed than the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees set the highest standards in their observance of the Law. They were highly patriotic and strongly anti-Roman. The Herodians, on the other hand, were seen as rather lax and not particularly devout. And they had the reputation of being a little too cosy with the Roman colonial powers. In normal circumstances these two groups would never be seen in each other’s company. But now they had a common opponent in Jesus. For Jesus was seen, depending on how he was interpreted, as challenging the Law on the one hand and as a potential rallying point for anti-Roman sentiment.
The confrontation is carried out with a good deal of subtlety. It begins with shameless flattery. “We know you are an honest man, that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you, and that you teach the way of God in all honesty.” In fact, every word of this is absolutely true and would that it could be said of every one of us! In their book, however, it means that Jesus is a very dangerous person and, indeed, people like Jesus have run into trouble all through history, not least in our own days.
Having, as they imagined, totally disarmed Jesus by their positive approach, they smoothly slip in the knife. One can almost hear the blandness and feigned innocence with which they ask their question: “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It sounds to us a very straightforward question but it was, in fact, one of the most politically sensitive issues of the day. And, of course, it was a trick question of the “Have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife?” kind. 
If Jesus said it was permissible, then he incurred the wrath of every Jewish patriot, most of all the powerful Pharisees, who deeply resented the presence of the Roman power on their land. If he said it was not permissible, then he could immediately be denounced by people like the Herodians to the Roman authorities for subversion. In either case, he would lose.
Jesus, of course, immediately sees through their deceit. He asks to be shown a denarius, a coin roughly equal to a day’s wage. It was a Roman coin and it carried the head of the emperor, Caesar Augustus. Pointing to the image, Jesus asks whose head it is and he is told it is that of the emperor. “In that case,” replied Jesus, “give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God.”
His enemies were reduced to speechlessness and they had no comeback. It was an answer that said everything and said nothing. It said everything because no one could quarrel with it; it said nothing because it did not decide in any way what belonged to God and what to the emperor.
The whole scene, of course, reflects a serious problem besetting the early Church. How much allegiance did they owe, as Christians, to the temporal power, especially one where the emperor was seen as having divine prerogatives or was openly persecuting Christians? There were clearly limits to the allegiance they could give. This resulted in waves of persecutions and large numbers dying martyrs’ deaths rather than compromise their faith.
It is still a live issue for us today. It concerns the question of separation of Church and state and how that is to be interpreted. It concerns the way we - both electors and elected - vote when sensitive moral issues are at stake.
In one sense, God has a total claim on our allegiance. There is nothing which does not belong to him. Nevertheless, society, through its legitimate authorities, also has a claim on our allegiance. It can make demands on us in asking us to contribute e.g. through taxation, to promoting the overall well-being of our whole community, especially of those who are in need.
As Christians, we cannot simply isolate ourselves from the political arena, that is, the area in which the interests of the citizenry is discussed and managed. The political arena is inseparable from issues of truth and justice and there is no way that Christians, who are committed to building the Kingdom, cannot be concerned about the welfare of their fellow citizens. “The Church should not dabble in politics,” say some. No, it should not dabble; it should be deeply involved in every important moral and social issue.

Nevertheless, the words of Jesus remain our guiding principle: We give to God what belongs to him; we give to society what it has a right to ask of us, our cooperation in making it a place guided by the principles and values of the Kingdom. To do anything less is to fail to give everything to God.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.'

If you hadn't pointed it out, I would not have realized that this was written in opposition to gnostic teachings.

Gnostic knowledge and Christian knowledge are different. Gnostic knowledge is, I think, essentially self-knowledge. Christian knowledge aims at knowledge of God. A religion centred on the self, like gnosticism, is idolatry. We all want to know who we are, but the best way to find out is through seeking to know God. Then we get to know ourselves better too, without even trying.

The incident with the Roman coin is so important and revealing. Everyone is focussed on the money, when Jesus suddenly throws in '..and to God what belongs to God.' - exit Pharisees and Herodians in confusion!

In the 'Our Father' we ask God to forgive our trespasses. These can be seen as debts we have incurred by failing to give to God what belongs to God. Of course, everything belongs to God, because He creates everything. How can we give the whole of creation back to God? I think that, since the means of creation is love, we should give God's love back to Him, in worship and obedience: the Mass. 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son..'