It was ‘bring your children to work’ day. So, a proud father brought his four-year-old daughter into his office. But, very soon, the child became cranky. Then she started to cry. Our concerned Dad asked her what was wrong? She replied ‘daddy where are all the clowns that you said you worked with!’
This week I have been listening to my denomination’s General Assembly via the internet. And it appears that many of the speakers were more careful of their language than that father. Indeed, most floated round the continuing issues of culture, politics and religion as they attempted to solve the problems of our congreations in Scotland today.
Whether their efforts will be rewarded or not, history will tell us.
But there has always been a tension between church and state. There has always been a conflict between the prevailing culture and Christ’s followers. Indeed, how each of us relate our faith to our society never fails to nag.
In a nutshell then, the battle royal between life temporal versus the life spiritual is inescapable.
And all this brings us to the passage above (Matthew 17.24-27) .
Now Matthew was probably writing for a break away Christian sect from their local synagogue. This group would have been under huge social pressure to return to Judaism. Yet the latter was unaccepting of Christ as Messiah. They were also possibly becoming unpopular with the Imperial Authorities. Indeed, penning his gospel at around AD 85, he would have known of the Roman Army’s destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD because of a local insurgence. This then must have left ethnic Jews a tad ambivalent towards the powers that be. In addition, Jews had to pay additional taxes simply for being Jews.
So, Matthew must have been asked by his fellow Christians, where should our loyalties lie? Was it with our old Jewish community or with the powerful Roman Empire? Put pragmatically, what tributes should we pay to Rome? Of course, we read Jesus’ response further on in Matthew when he quotes our Lord saying wisely: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.
Nevertheless, these types of questions are hugely appropriate for today. For as we look out at a nation and world ever more dominated with devisive and populist politics, we could be tempted to ask where do should we stand? How should we, as a Church, bear an active witness in the world? How, in fact, can we Jesus’ disciples have any impact on our society and culture?
Well, one way of implementing our Christian beliefs to engage fully in the political discourse of our age. We can, in all spheres, advocate a sense of justice and tolerance tinged with the moral direction which is the way of the gospel. The danger here is we could get mired in compromising with lesser evils to achieve the greater good.
Others would say that politics and religion should never mix. This is said out of the fear of alienating someone of a differing viewpoint. More directly, they wish to keep the door of a broad church open and welcoming. Once again, there is much wisdom in this approach. But it can leave us aloof, ineffectual even disdainful of those trying reforms in the secular arena.
So, both genuine cultural engagement or detachment leaves us in the same quandary as the disciples who were around Jesus. Since even if either was entirely achievable, the basic question remains – to whom should we pay tribute and what should we pay?
Around 1600 years ago, the Church founding father St Augustine was faced with even greater turmoil in his civilization. For the city of Rome had been sacked by barbarian tribes. Indeed, when he heard of the wonton pillage of the seat of political and religious power, he wept. This left him asking the question if the state is in ruin where then stands the Church?
After much thought, he came to the conclusion that the world we see is split into two cities. The City of Man or humans and the City of God. Augustine went on to say that the city of humanity was flawed without any hope of correction whilst the City of God reflected heaven above.
If we translate this into our situation today, we would realise that the crazy mixed-up world around us simply reflects the unalterable faults of human beings. Nowt can be done about it!
Now, this outlook can be disheartening to say the least. But Augustine also helps us when we feel overwhelmed. Because, he does suggest we should get involved with cultural debates but accept we may not win. But then he gives us latitude to withdraw from the world from time to time. There to seek the solace of the City of God. There we can recharge our spiritual batteries so to help us return to society and all its challenges. There to sharpen the sword of Christ’s wisdom for another go.
Saint Augustine’s most famous quote is probably – Lord, make me chaste but not yet! However, he said many other things germane to living as Christians in the real world. Words relevant to our lesson which asked who should I pay and how much?
One such utterance that is helpful is – pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on you. Let us then pay our tribute to the City of God by giving prayers. Then let us pay our Christian duty to society with more valiant efforts. For then we render God’s love to humans and render the good, the bad and the unsightly up to Heaven. Or as Augustine once coined a phrase – he who labours, prays.