Reflections for the Week
One company in the United States adopted a radical approach to their employee handbook. Instead of the usual pages of small print detailing the dos and don’ts of daily life in the firm, new employees received a simple five inch by eight inch card, on which was printed “Rule One: Use best judgement in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” This potentially risky strategy has succeeded in motivating staff, cutting administrative costs and addressing the issue of having to deal with hundreds of rules and regulations, which many employees failed to read anyway because of their detail and complexity. Certain standards are still required, of course, and staff are familiarised with health and safety requirements, but they no longer feel oppressed by rules that were seldom understood.
The adoption of this kind of approach represents a whole change of mindset, one with which Christians will be familiar. Jesus came to fulfil the law that had been given to the people by God, and taught that they should live by the law of love. No longer would the service of God require adherence to the minutiae of the old Law, but rather the radical option of loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving one’s neighbour as one loves oneself. For people unable or unwilling to live this radical way of life, the profound challenge of the law of love will seem frightening at best, and dangerously subversive, even blasphemous, at worst. Jesus knew that God, his Father, is above all else.
The Pharisees understood life and faith as literal adherence to the Law; by this criterion they judged others, judged themselves, and judged Jesus. If they could show that he was breaking or ignoring the Law, they could declare him a blasphemer, unrighteous, someone who was a danger to the people of Israel. But they struggled to find unorthodoxy in his teachings, and so conspired with their disciples and others to trap him by posing what they regarded as trick questions, impossible to answer without getting into one kind of trouble or another. To pay tax to Caesar would appear to recognise the Roman occupation of Israel as legitimate; to refuse to pay the tax would bring down the wrath of the civil authorities.
Jesus’ reply showed once again how radically different was his own approach to the Law of God. He simplified the question using what we would term lateral thinking: shifting the whole basis of the argument. He applied the supreme principle of giving to God what belongs to God, with the consequence that anything else is a relatively insignificant detail. What does it matter if you pay tax to the Romans, as long as God is served first? Who could argue with that?
It would be a mistake to think of the Pharisees as simply evil: rather they were misguided in their zeal for God’s Law, and this had the consequence of making them unscrupulous in their conflict with Jesus. In their piety, they had lost sight of the need to respect other human beings, and they became persecutors in the name of God. This is why Jesus was implacable in his opposition to them, seeking again and again to recall them to the true purpose of the Law.
There is a constant tension in society between the need to regulate human affairs with laws and regulations, and the need to prevent people from being overwhelmed with red tape, unable to move without transgressing rules. Some people depend on laws and regulations to give them a sense of security and certainty; others find any regulation, however sensible, simply irksome. This same tension is in the Church, and has been from the first disagreements between Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.
How do we strike a healthy balance between law and freedom? How do we avoid being like the Pharisees, living the letter of the law, but ignorant of its spirit? How do we avoid being overwhelmed with liturgical rubrics, while maintaining the unity and integrity of the faith? The answer lies in faithfulness to Jesus Christ, giving to God what belongs to God, and to civil authorities what belongs to them: living in the world, while not being of the world. What matters above all else is love and service of God and of neighbour: everything else can then be seen in its proper place.
The Living Word Redemptorist Publications
Where is My Life Headed?
Where do I look for security? Are we looking for security in the Lord or in other forms of security not pleasing to God? Where is my life headed, what does my heart long for? The Lord of life or ephemeral things that cannot satisfy?
Even the strongest kingdoms, the most sacred buildings and the surest realities of this world do not last for ever; sooner or later they fall. Jesus’ disciples were alarmed by this message and asked when this would happen and what the sign would be.
When and what… we are constantly driven by curiosity: we want to know when and we want to see signs. Yet Jesus does not care for such curiosity. On the contrary, he exhorts us not to be taken in by apocalyptic preachers. Those who follow Jesus pay no heed to prophets of doom, the nonsense of horoscopes, or terrifying sermons and predictions that distract from the truly important things.
Amid this din, Jesus asks us to distinguish between what is from him and what is from the false spirit and he firmly tells us not to be afraid of the upheavals in every period of history, not even in the face of the most serious trials and injustices that may befall his disciples. This awareness of the ephemeral nature of earthly things leads to a question about the meaning of our lives.
Using the image of a strainer, through which our life can be poured, reminds us that almost everything in this world is passing away, like running water. But there are treasured realities that remain, like a precious stone in a strainer. What endures, what has value in life, what riches do not disappear? These are the greatest good; these are to be loved. Everything else - the heavens, the earth, all that is most beautiful, will pass away; but we must never exclude God or others from our lives.
The human person, set by God at the pinnacle of creation, is often discarded, set aside in favour of ephemeral things. This is unacceptable, because in God’s eyes man is the most precious good.
Fr Bill's Thoughts