October 18, 2020

View From the Faith Office

A reflection on the Readings from the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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“From the rising to the setting of the sun, apart from me, all is nothing.” (Isaiah 1:6)
"Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21)

In the final, dramatic scene from the film, The Mission, the pragmatic, worldly Don Hontar justified the slaughter of hundreds of innocent, native South American Indians with the line, “We must work in the world; the world is thus.”

Cardinal Altamirano, who, from his position of ultimate authority, had indirectly sanctioned the slaughter, remorsefully replied, “No Signor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”

Every time we enter into political debate, the same conflict arises between striving after an unattainable ideal, or settling for achieving the good and the expedient. This weekend’s Gospel recognises the seeming dichotomy between the things of this world and the things of heaven, as if the two are irreconcilable. The Pharisees and the Herodians challenge Jesus to take sides. Do you live in a dream world of ideals and perfection, or do you live in this world with its compromise and imperfection? Do you wish to keep your hands clean and so do nothing, or are you prepared to get your hands dirty, working with the corrupt and self-serving?

Politicians, in fact leaders in any sphere, everywhere, everyday, live with this same conflict. If they insist on perfection, they will ultimately be disappointed. But anything less than the ideal involves compromise and surrender to that which they oppose. Either choice is ultimately unfulfilling. 

And so, in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives the ultimate, political answer to this great quandary of human existence, which is another way of saying that he doesn’t answer the question, or more accurately, says ‘yes’ to both choices. Because both positions are right.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Matt 22:21)

Christianity is all about striving after ideals: peace, justice, compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, hospitality, love. Given unconditionally, to all, especially the least in our society, those most in need on the extreme margins of our world. A noble vision of a perfect world. But a vision that recognises the reality of our existence is one of imperfection. In fact if the truth be acknowledged, we only have a vision of the ideal because we have an all too painful experience of the opposite.

We only truly appreciate good health when we personally experience what it is to be sick; only those who have been denied their freedom can truly understand what freedom means; only when faced with the harsh reality of death do we recommit ourselves to valuing again the arbitrary gift of life.

The Judeo-Christian story is also one of ‘journey’. Nothing happens at once. Abraham set out in search of the Promised Land; Moses left slavery in Egypt to wander in the desert seeking freedom in a land of milk of honey. Jesus’ mission of salvation involved the metaphoric life journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem. The ideal end is just that – an end point for which we continuously strive from an imperfect beginning.

The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, makes sense of this ‘theology of journey’ when the author writes, “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). While we strive for the ideal, perfect ending, the presence of God is in all the mess and the imperfection along the way. Jesus had no hesitation transacting with the world of Caesar, because this world is the theatre of God’s Kingdom as well. They are not two separate entities, but the one entity transformed and transfigured to perfection by the striving of all of us after the good and the loving. 

In all the mess of this world, and the less than perfect, the reading from Isaiah this weekend captures a beautiful reality:

“From the rising to the setting of the sun, apart from me, all is nothing.” (Isaiah 1:6)

We give you thanks God
For the gift of this day.
As we anticipate what it has to offer
We acknowledge that each of us begins
From different places, with different hopes and dreams, troubles and anxieties.
And so we ask that as we each set out on the journey
We may find in our community
The help, strength, encouragement, love and forgiveness
That we each need in our own measure.
May we face the coming days with an open heart
Confident that they will give us more than we need or could desire.
And may we always know that in the good times,
And even in the dark ones,
You are there beside us, a silent strength
Whispering words of peace and happiness
To bring us safely to journey’s end.
Amen



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