Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
I love the sparseness of today’s Gospel; Jesus’ deftly reframes the trap that has been set for him:
Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
End of story. Except it isn’t. It is true that Jesus has skillfully moved beyond the false dichotomy set up for him and infers that the Pharisees should focus on what is really their concern: not people’s money but their souls.
But the question isn’t definitively answered, and the tug and pull between civil and spiritual remains. Today, many of us grapple with the conflicts that may arise between Church law, civil rights, political agendas, and our personal relationship to God.
Yesterday was indescribably beautiful in Chicago. The leaves were bursting with color against a clear blue sky. On a scenic car ride with a friend up toward the tree-lined, winding roads of the North Shore, black graffiti was scrawled on one of my hometown’s viaducts: Whites: Do you want to be a minority? Say NO to mass immigration.
It was like an ugly scar went ripping across the beauty and tranquility of the day. My friend and I literally stopped in the track of our conversation. I kept trying to imagine the person who had written it – certainly we could agree or disagree about the policies of immigration – but it was the naked brutality of the words that were really shocking.
Maybe it is disingenuous to feel that one can have a civil, nuanced, even a Christian, conversation about immigration, the death penalty, abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, race, feminism, income distribution or any of the other hot button issues that have civil and/or spiritual repercussions. Maybe that tagger was just saying what lots of people want to say but don’t, except anonymously. And maybe the truth is this brutal elsewhere, too: maybe women who get abortions really are murderers; maybe gays should either change or go back in the closet or be celibate, maybe killers deserve to be executed, maybe poor people are poor because they just don’t try hard enough.
Whatever positions our Church, our government or the guy next door take, Jesus calls us to be compassionate. He calls us to love, to see beyond the exterior and into the heart. He asks us to rage at injustice only, and to bear, lovingly and humbly, the journey to name and address real injustice without resorting to angry labels and hateful characterizations. Jesus knows there are difficult conflicts we face, and his answer to the Pharisees proves that. But in the end, it is our right relationship to God that informs all else. I can only pray to get that "right relationship" right.
And so, difficult as it may be, I must now find in my heart the willingness to feel compassion for the person who wrote that graffiti. I can reject the message and its inflammatory call to action, but I still need to act in a way that helps Christ’s message of love continue to be made real in this sometimes very confusing world, which often seeks simple black and white answers that just don’t exist.
Nancy Nickel is director of communications at the Passionist Development Office in Chicago, Illinois.