Sunday, 19 October 2008

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees can be described as being “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”. If Jesus had said “NO”, then he would be charged with subversion. If Jesus had said “YES”, then he himself would be guilty of betraying his people, his religion and his God. It’s like “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

But, the answer Jesus gives is brilliant. He gives proper due to both God and Caesar. For Jesus, there is no conflict between God and Caesar or according to our more familiar formulation, there is no conflict between Church and State, between religion [which some see as the private sphere] and public life, as long as we are clear about the relationship between them. For Jesus, the clarity of the relationship is found in the priority given to God. The assumption is that there is someone who is in charge and to whom we ought to give our loyalty. It is when we acknowledge that God takes priority, only then can we render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Why? Because Caesar or the State, even though it plays an important role in our lives, that role is limited and cannot take the place of God. We owe our loyalty to our King and country; we are citizens, we enjoy all the security that our country provides. But, our country is not God.

Thus, the question is how do we render to God what belongs to God first? Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “God is dead and what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God”? However, if you think about it, Nietzsche’s reference to the death of God was a reference to Christianity as a spent-force. The reason for Nietzsche’s “God is dead” was because Christianity or Christians no longer made a difference in life. Christianity was no longer effective.

A logical response to Nietzsche’s critique against Christianity may be found in the realm of Caesar. In order to make a difference, that is, to testify that God is alive, we must venture into the realm of Caesar. We prove that God is alive by our mission in the world.

But, the first thing we need to do though is to get away from the idea of mission that has been glamourised. We think that mission is somewhat associated with political action on behalf of the poor, the marginalised, the excluded and the unjustly treated. These aspects of our mission are important because politicians are also telling us that God is dead and that they, the politicians are now in charge. Some of the problems we face in the country and in the world are because “politicians” have behaved like gods. The same is observed with the environmental crisis when “man” behaved as if they were gods and not stewards of creation.

So, our mission through the realm of Caesar is not restricted or confined to the glamour of political and social actions. In fact, it flows down to such simple tasks as found between your pots and pans in the kitchen. As it is not glamorous, it requires deep personal conviction as well as perseverance. It is tough to render to God what belongs to God without any promise of reward. And sadly, we often do things because we fear the possibility of punishment. And that leads me to my next point.

Often, our mission lacks power or credibility simply because our personal life lacks conviction. We may fantasise that our mission lies elsewhere and not in the “here and now”. As a result of this “dis-ease”, we live half-hearted lives as we do not see our present “situation” as husband, wife, children, parents, catechist etc as good enough to be offered to God.

In the 2nd Reading, St Paul affirms the Thessalonians that their faith in action, their love at work and their perseverance in hope are proofs of their utter conviction. The human spirit does not die from want or lack of courage. Look at fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. They may not be wise but they certainly do not lack courage. The human spirit does not die from lack of courage but it withers or dies from lack or want of conviction. Take a look at the life of St Thomas More. His philosophy of life was one of personal conviction: I die the King’s good servant but God’s first. In the midst of his predicament and despite his favourite daughter’s encouragement to give in to the King’s demand, Thomas was convinced that in order to remain faithful to his king, he must first remain faithful to God. This rendering to God first before all else is the conviction that we need to continue Christ’s mission in the world.

And we are somewhat supported by the first Reading. God chose Cyrus, a pagan king to achieve His purpose. The good news is that we are chosen by God and think how much more can God achieve because we are His and we belong to Him? But if we suffer a lack of conviction, then we will not be able “to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”. It is said that “Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible”. The trouble in an apathetic society, when we suffer from lack of conviction, is that all are guilty but only some are responsible. And these few responsible ones are the ones who pay the price for our guilt.[1]

Mission Sunday is a reminder that our mission is to follow Christ whose mission has been to lead the entire creation back to His Father. Give to God and to Caesar is a formula of conviction that we can continue Christ’s mission. When we give God our best, we will also want to make the world a better place.
[1] Ask RPK and the Hindraf Five who are detained at the “State’s” pleasure.