Sacred and Secular Worlds (October 2005)

October 2005


Sacred and Secular Worlds ©

In the final year of his life on earth, Jesus was often challenged about his teaching, particularly by the elders and chief priests who were becoming concerned about his growing influence.

We find in the gospels explicit references to hypothetical questions used to trap him into uttering statements that would be doctrinally incorrect. Each time, Jesus uses his reply to teach us something very profound about our faith.

It would be a mistake to see these as simple or even silly questions, though they may seem so to our ears today. These questions were asked precisely because they were – and still are – difficult. They required wisdom to discern the truth.

Jesus would have faced a great many questions during his years of public ministry. Some would have been asked in good faith by persons seriously interested in deepening and broadening their understanding of God’s teaching through sacred scripture but especially about their own experience of Jesus as a man and ultimately as the Son of God.

They learned by pondering in their heart as Mary had great questions and struggling with the possibilities that were revealed. After all, we know from pedagogical sciences that learning comes from questions, provided that they are asked in good faith.

In Matthew’s gospel, we find a question that is intended, on the other hand, to trap Jesus in the hope of having him say something that would cause the people to abandon him and to reject his teaching: “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” We are told that they said, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

Through flattery, they tried to get him to take a risk in answering a question that they were sure would alienate his audience: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” While the law to which they referred is the law of God, the question raises a number of problems viewed in both a sacred and a secular perspective.

This question was a minefield. The Herodians, to which the gospel refers, would favour payment of the tax; the Pharisees would not. Many listeners were against foreign rule and objected to support of the Roman Empire; the authorities would see any encouragement to withhold taxes as treasonous.

Seeing through their deceit, Jesus said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” We know that nothing raises the ire of Jesus more than hypocrisy.

Their hypocrisy is exposed by the fact that when he asks, “Show me the coin used for the tax”, they produce one, revealing that their participation in the imperial Roman economy. They seem content enough to accept the benefits of the administration that they oppose.

Then pointing to the coin, Jesus asks this question, “Whose head is this, and who title?” When they replied that it was the emperor’s, he declared an often-repeated verse, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Not only was this a clever response, it was a very instructive one.

First, it spoke volumes about Jesus relationship to the state. The teaching suggests that, whether we like it or not, we are part of civil society and, as such have rights and well as responsibilities towards it. Second, he reminds us that there is another kind of tax that often escapes our attention: the obligation to repay to God what is from God.

To the hypocrites, he later addressed this question, “You who ask about civil tax in respect of God’s law, are you concerned about repaying God with the good deeds that are his due?”

In part, he was recalling what he had said in the parable of the tenants in the vineyard: “And so I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.”
In our own time, it is often very difficult to prioritize our obligations to God in relation to those that are legitimately owed to the state.

We live in a world in which these realms are often at odds. We try to balance these by speaking of a separation between church and state. But in reality, our everyday lives can’t be carved up quite so neatly, at least not without falling into hypocrisy. Or without, for instance, giving God the use of our Sundays and turning our attention to the less godly things of the world the rest of the week.

The sacred and the secular are so separated that it can create a real stress in our lives. A contemporary theologian speaks of cognitive dissonance in regards to the conflict that occurs when the two are in our mind on an equal footing. His conclusion is that the mind, often unconsciously, subordinates one to the other in order to resolve the conflict and reduce the stress.

He adds that, because of its overwhelming presence in our daily lives, the “world” wins this tug-of-war in all cases, unless there is a conscious act of the will to live by God’s rules. For this to happen, we must necessarily be prayerful, thoughtful and deliberate in our choices.

We could dwell on what it means for a Christian to be in the world but not of the world, as scripture suggests. We could also spend a great deal of time reflecting on that it means for a Christian to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. But, during the time in which we are still working off the excess weight from Thanksgiving dinner, it is more profitable, I think, to meditate upon how to give to God the things that are God’s.

The starting point is by realizing what God is. John tells us that God is Love, pure love. He is the source of all love, including all of the expressions of love that we receive and even give. If that is the case, the most obvious way in which we ought to return what is from God is to return love. Not abstract love but love in action; love that is expressed through good works.

In fact, we are commanded to do so. Deuteronomy 6:5 reads, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” We are admonished to do so. In Matthew, chapter 22, we find Jesus repeating this same commandment. But to this Jesus adds, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself. The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

So, how do we repay to God what is from God? By loving God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. And, by loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. But remember, the love that Jesus speaks of is not a warm fuzzy feeling.

It is not enough to say, “I love God”. Nor is it enough to say, “I love humanity”, and to whisper under our breath, “It’s people I can’t stand!” For God, love is personal, even when it is addressed to a crowd of people. And it’s always expressed as concrete action.

So, what actions are available to us? There are several ways.

Our conscious thoughts are love in action. When we think about God and our relationship with him, when we become more aware of the many ways in which he blesses us, when we think about issues of social justice or kindness and forgiveness, we give to God the things that are God’s.

Giving of our time is love in action. When we spend time in prayer, in contemplation, in serving our families or contributing of our time to works of charity, we give to God the things that are God’s.

Giving of our energy is love in action. When we teach a child about Jesus, when we tell someone in distress about God’s love, when we proclaim good Christian values in the workplace, when we write our member of parliament about matters of faith, we give to God the things that are God’s.

Giving of our goods is love in action. When we donate to the church, to charities or to efforts to build peace and justice in the world, we give to God the things that are God’s.

In this regard, it is useful to remember the practice of tithing that is no longer in common use in many faith communities. Tithing, which is the giving of a percentage of revenues – typically 10 per cent – to God, can be given to the local church or as alms that benefit the worldwide body of Christ. To do so not only is a way of repaying to God what is God’s; it is rewarded with even greater blessings.

We read this from the prophet Malachi, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house and try me in this, says the Lord of hosts: Shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven to pour down blessing upon you without measure? For your sake I will forbid the locust to destroy your corps; and the vine in the field will not be barren, says the Lord and hosts.”

And God adds, “Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land.” If all people of faith gave to God the things that are God’s, then maybe the state would do so as well. Maybe there would be no stress between the sacred and the secular because all nations would call us blessed, for ours would be an even more delightful land.