19 October 2014
St. Joseph’s Church, Monaghan
My dear friends,
Louis XIV was King of France. He enjoyed hunting, as do many royals. When he went hunting he never wore gloves, even on the coldest days. One day, two French peasant farmers paused from their work in the fields to watch the king and the hunt pass by. One voiced his surprise that the king took no protection for cold hands. “His hands must be freezing”, he said. The other replied “Why should they be freezing? Does he not always have his hands in our pockets?”
A priest working in New York at the time, when he saw the burning towers on the site now called Ground Zero, he knew instinctively that something evil had happened. We only need to lift the daily newspaper now or watch a TV News Programme to remind ourselves of the power and frequency of evil in our world. When we read the Bible, we find it to be a story of good and evil at war with each other and, since earliest times, the Bible reminds us that we live in a world dominated by powers that are tilted towards evil.
The story of our salvation in the Bible tells us how God unleashed a power to redeem what had been damaged. God put this power to work through flawed human beings like ourselves, so it was a long and tedious struggle getting things sorted out. But, bit by bit, and slowly, God’s grace did the healing and persuaded us to take notice of the clock and, encouraged by the simple decency and everyday heroism of ordinary people, enabled us to claw back good from bad situations.
At times we may be overwhelmed by all the evil we see around us in our world and miss the great witness of many people which reassures us that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that there is a resurrection and life after death.
A United States business company adopted a radical approach to their employee handbook. Instead of the usual small print of pages detailing the do’s and don’ts of daily life in the firm, new employees received a simple 5”x8” card, on which was printed. Rule one: “Use best judgement in all situations. No additional rules.” The outcome was a considerable saving in administration costs and nobody had to wade through hundreds of rules and regulations that were seldom understood in any case. Jesus came to fulfil the law that had been given to the people of God and taught them to live in a spirit of love. Christians were to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and their neighbour as if he was family too.
From what we read in the Gospel, the Pharisees judged everyone by their slavish observance of many minute laws and regulations. They came to judge Jesus in the same way. If they could show that he was breaking or ignoring a law, they could label him a blasphemer and someone who was a danger to the people of Israel in leading them astray. To pay tax to Caesar would appear to recognise the Roman occupation of Israel as legitimate; to refuse to pay tax would be to bring down on you the tax authorities like a ton of bricks.
The reply of Jesus was radically different and it shifted the entire base of the argument. You could be kind in judging the Pharisees on the grounds that instead of labelling them as evil, you could describe them as misguided in their zeal for the law. In their zeal they became persecutors in the name of God. Jesus had to work hard to bring some of them to see that at its best the law is the distilling of the inner life of God and of respect for one another.
It is a continual problem in society to achieve a healthy balance in having laws and regulations to guide us without overwhelming ourselves with red tape and bureaucracy of one kind or another. Even Peter and Paul put themselves into unnecessary trouble in this way. As usual, Jesus came to our rescue in striking a healthy balance between law and freedom. He tells us simply to give to God what belongs to God and to the civil authorities what belongs to them. This allows for faithfulness to Christ. Love and service to God and neighbour has to be at the core of things if progress is to be made.
You could say that Caesar’s place is taken by the secular state, which may be without God rather than against him. It no longer bases its laws on his laws. This can pose serious dilemmas for Christians, especially those in public office. We cannot impose our own moral values and beliefs on others and yet we cannot take part in what is, for a Christian, morally wrong. Every Christian living in the modern world is faced with difficult demands. Whatever else we give to Caesar we cannot surrender to him our conscience. The shape of things may be different. Mission is still a huge reality even if it comes in different dress.
+Liam S. MacDaid
19 October 2014