Sunday, 16 October 2011

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

It is said that the outcome of the Gospel encounter between Christ and the Pharisee-Herodian cohort formed the basis for the modern concept of the separation between Church and State.

The context of the encounter was clearly entrapment. The historical setting was the tax revolt but the undercurrent was deeply theological because the episode took place after Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was either God and His divine laws were supreme or the Roman Emperor and his pagan laws were supreme. For Christ, it was a Catch-22 situation. On one side of the divide, to condone paying taxes would tantamount to collaboration with a foreign occupying power and would certainly alienate Himself from crowd for it had just acclaimed Him “King”. On the other of the divide, to censure or condemn taxes was synonymous with advocating revolt and thus incur the wrath of Rome.

The coin exposed the hypocrisy of those who perhaps harboured a secret desire to incite an uprising. Why? Their ease at producing a denarius betrayed their compliance with the system imposed by the foreign occupying power. Those who were intent on entrapping Christ were themselves trapped by own inconsistency. In other words, if you hate your enemy that much, why would you use the thing of your enemy, in this case, give consent to the very instrument of your oppression?

At one level, the lesson to learn is centred on the consistency or the coherence between what you stand for and what you do. The Pharisees and the Herodians were humiliated by the imposition of the tribute tax and to top off their hypocrisy, they not only possessed the very coinage of their humiliation, they also brought the profane denarius into the sacred Temple.

The reality of this inconsistency is not something revolutionary. If there is anything predictable about human behaviour, it is our inconsistency. We should never be surprised. This is important because our political scene is sullied by greedy and dishonest politicians. And nothing is more damaging to national life than a deep cynicism born of despair. But, inconsistency is not restricted to the political sphere. It is the existential condition of being human. Our economic, social and religious spheres suffer the same.

At another level, we may speak of the separation of powers. Here we apply the principle of equity—an expression of justice. “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” briefly summarises in particular, the just relationship between Christianity and secular power or, in general, between any religion and State.1 This division is useful because it helps to limit religious interference in secular matters and vice versa. In this country, where the line is not properly drawn, we constantly run into the same trouble again and again especially, when it involves the alleged conversion of a deceased.

Is there anything that points beyond the challenges of consistency and the separation of powers? In the first reading, we are directed beyond what belongs to Caesar. The theme “The Lord of History” suggests a larger picture that ultimately everything belongs to God. Put it in another way, temporal or secular powers are believed to be a reflexion of God’s governance of the world. At one time, especially during the Middle Ages, it was the basis for thinking of the divine rights of kings whose legitimacy to rule was derived from God Himself. The king was God’s regent on earth. Whatever the merit of such a doctrine, as we no longer accept it, the people assented to earthly authorities because they were meant to represent a vision of God for humanity. We render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar only because Caesar’s authority is supposed to be a reflexion of God’s sovereignty. Can you imagine how much God’s will be glorified if all secular powers [read = secular powers] know their place in society. They are not only our humble servants but they are also God’s regent and they are answerable also to God.

Hence, the discussion between Christ and His opponents should not be narrowly confined to the question of the separation between Church and State. Instead, the roles of Church and State are oriented to God in such a way that religion, in particular the Church, is to guide and inform consciences [now you understand where Fr OC was coming from] and thereby serve as check and balance to the power of the State. The State’s role is to protect the freedom of religious practices. You know how far we are from this ideal.

Finally, I am not advocating the formation of a “Christian” state. I am merely pointing out that the separation between Church and State is relative and not absolute. Both religion and State are necessary and at their best must allow Man to live his fullest potential in this world, which according to St Augustine, is called the City of Man so as to prepare him for the next world, which St Augustine also named as the City of God. It means that everything, even Caesar’s rule, must be brought under the rule of God for He is the Lord of history. We have a long painful and winding road ahead of us.