It is the time of tax, one of the two certain things in our life. It is also a period where politics and economics are at the centre of our conversation. In the midst of the economic and political turmoil around us at the moment, this word of the gospel comes to us: a word about the interrelationship between the things of Caesar and the things of God, about the things of government and the things of religion. How do they sit together?
These questions are certainly not new, but from time to time they arise with a greater sense of urgency. Often our memory of when they have arisen in the past can help us think through our response today. Recall, for example, the events in the Australian Church that occurred around the middle of the century. The 1950’s was a tumultuous period in the life of the Australian Church. It was a period of great ferment and struggle in the Church, as what was known in the first half of the twentieth century as Catholic Action found expression, particularly in Melbourne, in the fight for influence within the Australian trade union movement when the threat of communist infiltration was very real.
In Melbourne at that time two figures emerged in leadership. One of them was well known, the other not so well known. But both were struggling with the question of what the Catholic response to the social and political issues of society would be. How should a Catholic be in relationship with the society in which he or she lives?
Ray Triado’s answer was to leave the society. Inspired by Chesterton’s European vision of the artisan village, Triado sought to establish an alternative society which became known as “Whitlands” some 60k NE of Melbourne. Bob Santamaria sought more direct political involvement exerting far more direct influence on the political structures of the time.
History tests the effectiveness of each response. But the important thing for our consideration, beyond whether we agree with or disagree with either response, is that both were fundamentally trying to engage this question: What should the relationship be between the disciple of Jesus and his society? How is the Christian to relate to the world of politics and economics? How does the Kingdom of God co-exist with the Kingdom of Caesar, understanding Caesar in this sense to be a metaphor of social and political order?
The circumstances of our own time, and today’s gospel, challenge us to face these questions as earnestly as our forbears did in the 1950’s, even if our answer might be different. Our engagement though should be no less earnest.
Jesus’ response to what is put before him at first seems clever for its simplicity and its resolution. There is a sense of logical accommodation about it. But is it that easy? Are the people amazed at the logic? Or are they amazed at the radical potential that Jesus is indicating in his response as he holds both realms together. Are they amazed at the extraordinary possibility that Jesus is really intimating here?
The more we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and the more we give to God what is God’s at the same time, the more conflict will ensue: the power of each is different. And so Jesus is calling us into a state not of accommodation, but actually into a state of tension, not to shy from this tension, but to allow it to impact upon us. If we give to Ceasar what is Ceasar and to God what is God’s we will eventually find ourselves disturbed by the polarity. Do we abandon the tension, and opt for one side or the other? Or, do we live with the tension, seeking the transformation of one by the other? I think it is this option that Jesus is actually inviting us into by his comments in today’s gospel.
In such an invitation, Jesus invites us to consider that the Kingdom of God is not a distant one; it is one to be worked at now in the concrete circumstances of our society, in and through the affairs of Caesar. That is why we cannot work for the things of God without also working for the things of Caesar.
This is because the Kingdom of God is not an abstract notion, it is not an idea. It is a social reality: an order of relationship between people which we are commissioned to bring about – a social order which works to the inclusion of all, and the exclusion of none. We are waiting for the Day of God, yes, but we may hasten its coming in and through our efforts to establish this new social reality which is to mirror the Communion which is God.
Working for Caesar and for God means working for a transformation of the existing order based on the principles of the Kingdom of God. This indeed is the political agenda of Christians. It is political because it is about social change. The experience of the gospel impels us to a social strategy of resistance against all that would destroy life and rob another of their dignity, a strategy of resistance to anything that might work to the benefit of some but to the exclusion of others.
We are to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. At first it seems that these are two apparent opposites, with nothing in common. But in the commitment to both, we begin to recognise those points of confluence. Then the Kingdom further irrupts into our world, this society, not as a notion, but truly as an event.
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