There was a time, shortly after my wife and I were married, with our whole lives before us, that we believed we were the masters of our own destiny – the world, as they say, was our oyster…. then we had children.
And we realized very quickly that things were going to be completely different forever. As I was praying over this Sunday’s readings, and thinking of a time when the kids were quite small, when on more than one occasion, someone would escape from the bathtub and run down the hall, with one of us chasing after them with a towel – it reminded me of the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes….and I think I actually did refer to one of the kids when they were a baby as ‘the little Emperor’.
The acceptance of a change in life is part of growth; it’s a sign of maturity. And while these changes come and go, as we grow we come to understand that we have to direct our attention to these matters at hand, and they become part of our routine; our daily realities; our existence. But there is always a possibility that we can become so involved in something, that we ‘put on blinders’ and lose sight of other things around us, things that should be included in our priorities. Sometimes we forget the most fundamental things that should be important to us.
We know as human beings that if we become over-absorbed in something, it can bring about stress, it can impact our relationships with others, it can harm our performance in our work or school………in short, this tunnel vision can cause harm to our physical, emotional and social well being. We lack balance; a balance which God created in us and intended us to have. We get lost in the ‘distractions’. We lose focus. We forget that we are not only physical beings – but spiritual beings as well.
Western society in particular, has gotten so caught up in this mentality of ‘separation of Church and State’ to the extreme that religion and faith are pushed so far to the margins, that we act as if the material world is all there is. In the midst of the secular, we have lost the sacred.
And how do we avoid this trap?
Jesus provides us the answer Himself in the exchange concerning giving the emperor what belongs to the emperor and giving to God what belongs to God.
These things become like the Emperor in today’s Gospel – those putting the question to Jesus are seeing the Roman Emperor as the single most important influence on everything in their lives, and it is preventing them, as Jesus points out, from seeing what should be truly important to them (especially since those asking the question are part of the religious leadership of Jerusalem).
This question put to Jesus was incredibly volatile…; to understand how volatile this question was – it was the exact issue which, about 30 years later in history, would lead to the Jewish revolt which ended with the complete destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the dispersal of the Jews throughout the known world….the ones that asked it were hoping Jesus would either say ‘yes pay taxes to the Romans’ in which case he would alienate most of his Jewish followers….or he would say ‘no don’t pay the taxes to the Romans’ in which case, the Roman governor’s guards would have to arrest him on the spot for sedition.
Either way, the questioners were hoping this exercise would put an almost immediate end to Jesus mission, so they could stop listening to Him and go back to their own routine.
Those things which become our Emperors likewise threaten our interior mission; to try to put an end to the movement of Jesus deeper into our hearts and our lives. When they become the end, rather than a means to an end; when we can’t even consider that God may have an interest in how our daily lives play out in our homes, our workplaces our communities; that’s when we have taken what belongs to God and given it to the Emperor; that’s when we risk not only our own emotional and physical well being, but we hamper and threaten our spiritual well-being too.
What are our Emperors? Anything can be; when it changes from being one of a number of concerns we need to deal with in real life, to something which is all-absorbing; keeping all our attention focused only on it; …the mortgage, outstanding debts….a new house…career advancement….employment opportunities….personal pursuits or hobbies…a particular relationship…accumulating material goods….
What do we owe God? Well, quite simply and bluntly – everything; we owe God our lives, all of our blessings we’ve received, the struggles that have helped us grow, the people that have come and gone in and out of our lives, in short, our very existence is a gift from God – we owe God everything.
Do we respond as if everything belongs to God? Here is where the intention of our heart is so important – do we respond to God grudgingly, out of some sense of duty ? Or do we respond because we desire to respond?
Coming to Sunday Mass is a good thing. Our faith teaches that we are obliged to come to Sunday Mass, that we should give that time back to God……but is there more we could do in nurturing our own relationship with God?
Could we spend time with God in personal prayer, even if only a few minutes a day?
Can we reach out to those around us, both in our communities and in the wider world? This Sunday marks World Mission Sunday, a time when we are asked to keep in mind all those who suffer throughout the world, not only material poverty, but spiritual poverty as well – those who do not have a relationship or knowledge of Christ; and those who serve in the mission fields. But mission work isn’t only for a select few in countries far away. It is as close as our own homes and towns.
We can give of our treasure, but more importantly, give of our time to those in need, and do it for the love of God; maybe an estranged family member; maybe an elderly acquaintance who has no family near by; maybe volunteering at a local charity like the food bank; perhaps giving your service through one of the groups in our parish like the Legion of Mary, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, or the Lay Missionaries of Charity.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in explaining the rules of her new order, once wrote, ”our life should be one of giving love –sacrifice to God…of our own free will and choice. We quench His thirst – not because we must – but because we love.”
Listen to the way God speaks to His people through the prophet Isaiah in the first reading today; “I call you by name, I surname you, though you do not know me…I arm you, though you do not know me, so that all may know from the rising of the sun and from the west there is no one besides me. I am the Lord and there is no other… ”
This isn’t the demand of some angry, overbearing oppressive God, although our secular society would have us believe otherwise. This is not God ordering us to give him our hearts; it’s an invitation to come into closer relationship with God, a relationship which can’t help but have a bearing on every aspect of our lives.
This is a statement of who God is for us; and very much the same as any loving parent, God provides his children with guidance to keep them from harm- in fact God is the ultimate parent …. whether it’s chasing wet toddlers down the hall at bath time, clothing, feeding, nurturing and providing for them…good parents don’t hand the children a statement or invoice each day and say, ‘ you owe me.’ The ideal parent provides and guides their child because they love them – not because they expect a return on the investment of their time and care; ultimately, it’s up to the child as they grow and mature to decide whether to listen or not; whether or not they want a closer relationship with their parent.
And so it is with our relationship with God –; being united with God – that’s what holiness is; and holiness is what we are all called to, it is the fundamental calling of each of us… we are God’s children; He loved each of us first- and he invites us to return that love, that which belongs to God, back to Him .
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!