Shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christianity spread throughout all of the Roman Empire. At the time, the Empire was beginning its decline. The pagan culture was full of corruption. Most people lived with little concern for others or for human life. Because of this, the most popular form of entertainment was to watch people kill each other in gladiator games. And there was no recognition of the rights of the individual. For no reason, the government routinely confiscated people’s goods, put them in jail and even had them killed. The Roman Empire had become a difficult place to live a good and peaceful life, especially for the poor.
But as Christianity became more popular and spread throughout the Empire, all this began to change. The Church first gained followers not only by her preaching of the gospel but also by her service to the poor. Much of the Church’s efforts were focused on bringing food to the hungry and finding shelter for the homeless. Though most pagans were suspicious of Christians, they could not help but admire their love for the destitute. As Christians became more influential and even found themselves in positions of authority in government, they were able to change many of the Empire’s corrupt practices. And, when Christianity was finally made legal in the fourth century, the influence of the Church put an end to such cruel practices as crucifixion, made child sacrifice illegal and strengthened the institution of marriage. Christians through their example of love and by their witness to faith in Jesus Christ were able to take as savage a place as Rome and make it at least somewhat more humane.
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”, are often taken to mean that which should maintain a strict separation between our life of faith and our contribution as citizens. We are often told that we have a right to worship however we please, but we should not let our faith influence whom we vote for or what policies we support. Religion should be private, we are told, and anything that makes reference to God the Creator has no place in public life.
Now, imagine if the early Christians had lived that way. They would have kept to themselves, not helped the poor and not spoken out about corruption in government. Then nothing would have changed. Or imagine if people of faith had adopted that attitude in the face of slavery and civil rights issues. Then people would still be enslaved and denied their rights because of the color of their skin. In every generation, people of faith have risen up, inspired by Jesus’ gospel of love, to fight whatever harms the dignity of any of God’s children.
The same is true for us today. As a society we are faced with many challenges. Human life is coming increasingly under attack. We fail to protect the life of the innocent unborn child, and now many want to enact measures that make it easier for healthcare providers to end the lives of the sick and elderly. The institution of marriage which is the cornerstone of society is constantly being undermined. With the economy continuing to struggle,we look upon the poor and immigrants as problems to be solved rather than as our brothers and sisters whom we must love. Can the followers of Jesus stay silent when there is so much misery all around us? Can we keep our faith in a little box that we only open on Sunday when our neighbors are crying out for justice?
As followers of Jesus, we are called to influence the society around us and to transform it into one that puts people first. There are many ways that we can do this. First of all, we must do it by our example. The early Christians impressed their fellow citizens by their love for one another and by their care for the poor and destitute. We must do the same. However, it is not enough for us to give handouts to the needy. We must also befriend them. Poverty does much harm to people. Not only does it steal their sense of dignity, it also isolates them from society. Because they are ashamed of their circumstances, they withdraw from others and suffer intense loneliness. If we are to meet their deepest needs, we will not only provide them with a meal from time to time, but we will treat them as brothers and sisters, restoring their confidence in themselves, and helping them overcome whatever stands in the way of their living the full life that God intends for them.
The next way we can influence our government and society is by speaking out about the issues that threaten human freedom and dignity. We can do that by educating ourselves about these issues, speaking about them with our friends, writing our elected officials and by voting our conscience. Too often our politics is influenced more by the personality of candidates and catchy sound bites rather than what is beneficial to the common good. Because of our faith, we can elevate the national debate by keeping the focus on the dignity of human life, the defence of marriage and family life and the needs of the poor.
It is true that our money bears the image of our presidents, kings and rulers. But each of us bears the image of One who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Each of us bears the image and likeness of our Creator. And we are called to live His gospel of love and so transform the world around us. As Saint Paul urges us, we are to prove our faith by working in love. Jesus makes it clear that we will be judged by how we have treated the poor among us. Moreover, our society has lost its way on so many critical issues and desperately needs the witness of Christians. Inspired by the message of love and hope we have discovered in the cross of Christ, we can go forth in the transforming power of the Spirit to make our world one marked by justice and peace.