Encountering the Truth

Jesus said to them, “The things of Caesar give back to Caesar, and the things of God to God.”
Mark 12:17

 

Today’s gospel from Mark tells us that Jesus recognized the hypocrisy in the question to him of the Pharisees and Herodians. This encounter is reminiscent of the dynamic in a lecture in an academic setting. Most of the time, one of the earliest questions asked after the presentation has been made will be a test of the lecturer’s competence. The questioner will not be seeking to learn something he or she doesn’t know, but rather will be putting the presenter to the test. The question is not based on a desire for deeper knowledge or understanding but rather a matter of assertion of the questioner’s superiority.

We have something of this same dynamic at work in the political life of the United States at this time. In large part we go to sources of information that support what we already know, think, and believe. We attend not to learn, grow, and change, but rather to have our own knowledge and perspective buttressed. In today’s gospel we are reminded that such a closed and arrogant stance is not only dangerous politically and culturally but also personally and spiritually.

There is an ambiguity which is also a profundity in Jesus’ answer to the question and challenge of his questioners. At the most obvious level, Jesus is distinguishing for them between the secular and the sacred, between the demands of the state and the invitation of God. Yet his response, in the mode of all great spiritual teachers, is also complex and somewhat, at least immediately, ungraspable, for his reply draws us into the realm of the distinction between the immediate and the ultimate. On the one hand, he says to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but rendering to God what is God’s means respecting the absolute claim and sovereignty of God. Even the rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s must be done within our responsibility to God, for “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).

The transcendence and the sovereignty of God is not merely an ethereal or remote concept. Giving back what we think we owe to Caesar, or to our own ideas for that matter, while perhaps not always pleasant is readily doable. Giving back to God what is God’s, however, is of an entirely different order. For all, including our very selves, are God’s. We have a responsibility to God that is always beyond what we can recognize and comprehend. What this means, in actuality, is that everything personal, cultural, ecclesial, and societal that we create is partial, tentative, and requiring constant change and reformation. The challenge of Jesus’ response in today’s gospel reminds us that while we can quite definitively “give back” to Caesar, we can only “give back” to God in fear and trembling. We never totally know if what we are doing in response to God’s love and invitation is “right or wrong.” What we can know, only in humility and faith, is that it is very partial.

The arrogance we often embody in our private and our public lives is actually profound ignorance. We have confused our own purposes and ideals with God’s. We are failing to give back to God because our thoughts, plans, projects, goals,and agenda are meant to serve God’s, not the other way around. It is because of our limited ability to know God and God’s will that, as Reinhold Niebuhr says, “God stands over and against humanity and nation.” It is not that God is against us but rather that all of our ideals and purposes are always, at best, such a partial incarnation of the will of God and of our call that God’s reality stands against them. To realize this would mean that as individuals and as nations we would live in the humility that recognizes our own ignorance. Arrogance would be far from us, for we would always need to be “asking, seeking, and knocking” (Mt. 7:7) on the door of the truth.

Pope Francis speaks often of what he terms “the spirituality of encounter.”  In a homily on August 5, 2013, Pope Francis described this spirituality. “The truth is an encounter — it is a meeting with Supreme Truth: Jesus, the great truth. No one owns the truth. We receive the truth when we meet it.” We don’t own the truth; we come to know the truth when we meet it. If we are full of ourselves, however, we cannot meet the truth. We must live in the humble realization that “the other” carries a truth that is unknown to us. We must encounter the other, and the world, with a heart and spirit (and, of course, mind) that is open to receive the truth that they bear.

In American public and church life we speak a lot about God. But the God of whom we usually speak is most often “on our side.” Were we, in this arrogance,to actually encounter God, we would experience God, as Niebuhr says, “as enemy before being known as friend.” God would be the enemy, as Jesus was to his interlocutors, because God threatens our own certitudes. It is in us to destroy our planet in support of those certitudes of ours, and it is that arrogance of which God is the enemy. Thus, we well might experience any true in-breaking of God first as a destruction of those idols, interior and exterior, which we have built.

In the age of self-actualization and self-assertion, a sense of responsibility to that which is far beyond us is a fading disposition. We have just celebrated the Feast of Pentecost in which, miraculously, the punishment for the Tower of Babel is overturned and all hear of God’s works, each in their own tongue. Today we increasingly are returning to the disintegration and dispersion of Babel. The words that so often come out of the mouths of public figures and too often of all of us are, in truth, meaningless. What grounds our words in the truth, is our responsibility to a greater truth. The world is God’s before it is ours. Were we truly alive and responsible to the sovereignty of God, we would utter every word in fear and trembling, knowing that even with our best efforts to be honest and true to God’s will, we can only partially approach and reflect that truth. We need encounter with others who seek responsibly for God’s truth. We would then offer what we have in humility, and appeal to the other,through that same speech, to receive from them and to appreciate the truth that they offer us.

Yet the biblical concept of a divine sovereignty over individual and collective historical destiny has a unique quality. This quality is given to Biblical thought by the fact that the God who is operative in historical destiny is not conceived as the projection or extension of the nation’s or individual’s ideals and purposes, nor as a power coextensive with, or supplementary to, the nation’s power; nor as a force of reason identical with the “Logos” which the human mind incarnates. . . .

The idea of a source and end of life, too transcendent to the desires, capacities, and powers of human life to be either simply comprehended by the human mind or easily manipulated for human ends, represents the radical break of biblical faith with the idolatrous tendencies in all human culture. This God stands over against humanity and nation and must be experienced as enemy before being known as friend. Human purposes, insofar as they usurp the divine prerogatives, must be broken and redirected, before there can be a concurrence between the divine and the human will.

Reinhold Niebuhr

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