Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Psalm 95(96):1,3-5,7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
Picture: cc Lucy Fisher
Picture: cc Lucy Fisher
My dear friends, do you like to shop in a department store? If you do, what do you like about it? One of the things that I like is, precisely, the departments. They allow all the merchandise to be neatly organised and easy to locate. If I want to buy a shirt, I can just go directly to the menswear department. I don’t have to waste time wandering among pots and pans or women’s clothes. Everything has its place. Its own proper department.
But what about electricity? And I don’t mean electrical appliances. These usually have their own department too. But electricity does not. It is not confined to a single area. It is needed throughout the store. It provides the power with which to freshen the air, and light up the whole place. Imagine what it would be like if a foolish store manager were to treat electricity as just another kind of merchandise. Imagine what would happen if s/he tried to restrict the flow of electricity to just one department. The rest of the store would be left in the dark!
Which goes to show that, although departments may be good to have in a store, not everything is meant to be departmentalised. Electricity is a power, not a department. And it is helpful for us to keep this in mind as we ponder our Mass readings today. Especially because it can help us avoid misunderstanding what Jesus says to his opponents in the gospel. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians try to trap the Lord by asking him whether it is permissible to pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus says no, then he’ll get into trouble with the Romans. But if he says yes, then the religious authorities will have something to use against him. As they say, damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Still Jesus manages to escape by giving a deceptively simple answer. Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar–and to God what belongs to God. But what does this look like?
I’m not sure how you feel, sisters and brothers, but I find it tempting to think that Jesus is telling us to keep our lives strictly departmentalised. To maintain one section for Caesar, and another for God. And to keep both these sections separated from each other. But is this really what the Lord means? Is God no different from the goods in a department store? Can God really be confined to a single isolated section of my life?
We are familiar, of course, with the political doctrine that calls for a separation of church and state. And we know its value. We don’t want our Archbishop to take over the job of the Prime Minister. With all due respect to his Grace, that would be disastrous. Nor do we want the government to determine what we Christians believe, or how we practise our faith. Much like how, in a store, we wouldn’t want the sales personnel and the electricians to interfere with each other’s work. But, even so, the fact remains that electricity is needed throughout the store. It is not meant to be departmentalised. Electricity is a power, not a department. Can we not say the same about God?
We see this more clearly in the other readings. In the first reading, the people have been living long years in exile in Babylon. But now, the Persians have conquered Babylon. And Cyrus, the Persian king, allows the people to return to their homeland. But, although it may seem that Cyrus is the one responsible for the people’s good fortune, the prophet sees things differently. For him, even the rise and fall of empires is the result of the powerful and providential hand of God, quietly at work behind the scenes. To the prophet, Cyrus is acting only as God’s instrument. It is God who has anointed the Persian king. It is God who sets the people free. Which makes it very clear that God’s activity is not restricted to any single department. God is at work in all areas of life. As much in politics as in religion. God can use even a pagan ruler to achieve God’s own purposes. Like the electricity in a department store, God blesses the people by freshening their lives and brightening their way. They experience God as a power, not a department.
This is also the experience of the Christians of Thessalonica in the second reading. Paul reminds them that the Good News came to them not only as words. Not only as pious religious sentiments, routinely expressed in church and in prayer, but without any practical effect on the rest of their lives. On the contrary, the Thessalonians experience the Good News as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. The Word of God has a radical transforming effect on every aspect of their lives. Enabling them to live as Christ lived. As it was for the people in the first reading, so too for the Thessalonians. God is experienced as a power, not a department.
And isn’t this an important reminder for us as well? For many of us, life can feel very much like a fully-stocked department store. Filled with so many things, that we have to struggle constantly to ensure that everything is kept in its proper place. When we are home, 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 problems cloud our judgment at work. And this is as it should be.
But still, as important as it may be to departmentalise our lives to some degree, isn’t it also important to realise that God is not a department? God is not just one more thing among the many things in our lives that require management. Rather, God is the Divine Electricity, the Power of Love made manifest in the sacrifice of Christ. The Power we are gathered at this Mass to celebrate. The Power that continually freshens our lives, and lights up our way to Eternity. But, to more fully appreciate and enjoy this Power, we need to avoid trying to restrict God to certain narrow segments of our lives. We need to be willing instead to allow God gradually to influence every area of our earthly existence. To truly give the Lord glory and power. By showing our faith in action, by working for love, and persevering through hope in Jesus Christ.
Not just here in church. But also at home, in school and in the office. Not just through pious prayer. But also through good works that promote charity and justice, reconciliation and peace. And not just in religious affairs. But also in politics and economics, science and technology. And in every other field of human endeavour. Isn’t this what it really means for us to be a truly missionary church?
Sisters and brothers, if it is indeed true that, like electricity, God is not meant to be departmentalised, then what must we do to experience more fully the life-giving effects of God’s Power, in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world today?