29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Psalm 95:1,3-5,7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
Picture: cc idi0tekue
Sisters and brothers, do you like to shop in department stores? What do you like about it? What I like about department stores are, precisely, the departments. In a well-run store, all the goods will be neatly organised and easy to locate. To buy a shirt, for example, I can just go directly to the menswear department and try one on. I don’t have to waste my time wandering around, getting lost among pots and pans or women’s attire.
Now, if you were the manager of such a store, what do you think are some of the challenges you might have to face? I think one ongoing challenge would be to ensure that the merchandise always remains well-organised. That is not easy. Especially because, as you know, we shoppers have a habit of moving things around. But although it is hard to keep everything in its proper place, this is by no means the only difficulty.
What about electricity? I don’t mean electrical appliances. These will, of course, have their own proper department. But electricity does not. Electricity is not confined to any one department. It is needed throughout the store. It’s the power that freshens the air and lights up the room. Imagine what would happen if a foolish store manager were to treat electricity as just another category of merchandise. Imagine what it would be like if s/he tried to restrict electricity to just one department in the store. That’s quite a ridiculous thought isn’t it? The rest of the building would be left in the dark! No one would shop there. The store would have to be closed. Which goes to show how important it is to appreciate the nature of the thing. Electricity is power, not a department.
Clearly, then, not everything is meant to be departmentalised. And this is an important insight that we should keep in mind as we meditate upon our Mass readings today. Especially because the conversation in the gospel between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians may at first sound like a quarrel over departments. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? It’s tempting to approach this question as a choice between two competing departments. In the store of life, space is limited. Should we have a department dedicated to God? Or one dedicated to Caesar? Should we choose politics over religion? Or vice versa?
And not just the question, but even Jesus’ answer can be misunderstood as a statement about departments. Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar–and to God what belongs to God. When we hear this, it may seem as though Jesus is telling us to keep our lives rigorously departmentalised. To maintain one section for God and one for politics. And to keep both these departments strictly separated from each other.
But to misconstrue the gospel in this way is to fall into a very dangerous trap. It is the same trap that imprisons both the Pharisees and the Herodians, even as they team up to entrap Jesus with their question. Like foolish store managers, these people fail to appreciate that God cannot be confined to a particular section in a store. And because they try to do this, they end up with a blackout. They are engulfed in darkness. They fail to recognise and to receive Jesus, the Light of the World.
We are, of course, familiar with the political doctrine that calls for a separation of church and state. We all know its value. For example, we don’t want our Archbishop to take over the job of the Prime Minister. That would be disastrous. Nor do we want the government to tell us Christians what to believe and how to worship. Again, it’s not unlike a department store. Some of the staff are trained as sales personnel. Others as electricians. You don’t want these people to confuse their roles. But, even if a store has specially trained electricians on its staff, the fact remains that electricity is needed throughout the whole store. Electricity is power, not a department. And the same can be said about God.
We see this even more clearly when we consider the rest of our scriptures for today. The first reading is set in a time towards the end of the Babylonian Exile. The Persian army has conquered Babylon. Cyrus, the Persian king, then passes a decree allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland. However, although it may seem that Cyrus is the one responsible for the people’s good fortune, the prophet thinks differently. He looks beyond the rise and fall of political regimes to the powerful and providential hand of God, secretly at work behind the scenes. To the prophet, Cyrus is acting only as God’s instrument. It is God who has appointed the Persian king to set the people free. From the prophet’s point of view, then, God’s activity is not restricted only to a particular narrow domain. Instead, God is at work in all areas of life. As much in politics as in religion, God labours effectively on the people’s behalf, freshening the air and brightening their way. Like electricity in a store, God is power, not a department.
We find this to be true also for the Thessalonians in the second reading. As St. Paul reminds them, when they received the Good News, it came to them not only as words–not only as pious religious sentiments–but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. The Word of God had a radical transforming effect on every segment of their lives. Here too, like electricity in a store, God is power, not a department.
And isn’t this an important reminder for us as well? For many of us, life is not unlike a fully stocked store. It’s filled with so many things, that we need to struggle constantly to ensure that everything has its proper place. When we are home, for example, we don’t want to allow the stresses and strains of the office to affect our interactions with our family. Nor do we want to let troublesome family issues cloud our judgment at work.
Still, as important as it is to departmentalise our lives, it’s even more important to realise that God is not a department. God is not just another thing that requires management. God is instead the divine electricity that continually freshens our earthly existence. God is that wonderworking power that guides and strengthens us on our way to eternity. If only we allow it.
For we can only benefit fully from this power when we stop restricting God to certain narrow segments of our lives. When we are willing instead to allow God to influence every aspect of our earthly existence. In the words of the responsorial psalm: in our lives we need to give the Lord glory and power, to give the Lord the glory of his name.
Sisters and brothers, in the busy shopping mall that is your life, how many departments are truly being powered by God today?