29th Sunday in Ordinary time

Some time ago I watched a documentary about a social experiment. Residents in a street somewhere in England agreed to live for six weeks without the services provided by their local council. They were handed back their council tax for that period of time. It was up to them how to use the money. Their first surprise came with the switching off of street lights that very evening when the experiment began; their street sunk into pitch black darkness. Within a couple of days they were facing many problems. Previously, they had taken a great deal for granted. At one point the residents established a kind of local council to make decisions on how to spend the money that was available to them. Their needs exceeded their means; they simply couldn’t afford everything they wanted.

We don’t like paying taxes. Everyone likes to keep money in their own pocket. But we understand that without taxation there will be no police officers looking after our security, no medical staff looking after our health, no free education for children, no good roads and so on. We pay taxes hoping that the money will return to us in the many services provided by various authorities. It seems to me that we pay for our own benefit.

People living in the Holy Land two thousand years ago had a different problem with two dimensions.  Firstly they were taxed by the occupying power, Rome. Secondly Roman coins bore an effigy of the Emperor, while Judaism forbade making any likeness of animals or human beings. Consequently paying taxes was regarded as unpatriotic and sacrilegious. Jewish religious leaders decided to use this against Jesus, who was becoming dangerously popular among ordinary people. The question was treacherous. It seemed it had only two possible answers; either of them would most certainly finish Jesus’ public career. He would either be arrested by the Romans or rejected by the crowds.

This is the way an extremist thinks, perceiving everything as black or white. Their opinions and beliefs are strong and beyond dispute. They have only two attitudes towards other people: making them like themselves or destroying them as enemies. Interestingly while they are strict and demanding in regard to others, they are usually lenient towards themselves. Usually they mix ideological beliefs (religious and non-religious) with politics and present them as if they were something inseparably joined. The Nigerian so-called ‘pants-bomber’ – who’d planned to kill 300 people he’d never even met in an aeroplane – proudly stated last Wednesday that ‘he was fulfilling a “religious duty” and participating in an act of jihad against the US’. Let’s be very clear – this kind of extremism is not exclusively reserved to Islamic terrorism.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees took the wind right out of their sails. He clearly rejected both religiously driven politics and politically driven religion. The interaction of religion and politics is much more subtle. Correctly understood religious beliefs form in the human heart many positive spiritual features like sympathy, helpfulness and openness. An individual with a properly formed spirituality will inevitably meet other people with compassion. They are not enemies. This is something that transforms the world around us, making it better. And it starts deep inside each one of us.