Listening to God together
A reflection for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
by Carolyn Woo
On its surface, the question of taxes posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians is legitimate and serious. It was embedded within a context of competing loyalties: the Pharisees whose religious code prohibited the use of images including the imprint of Caesar on coins and banners, and the Herodians, supporters of King Herod whose survival required staying on the right side of the Romans. The question pertained to the identity of the Jews as a people in covenant with God and the practical realities of living in occupation under a foreign ruler. The question is relevant, central, and difficult with no simple answer. This is the type of topic worthy of master classes and learned lectures.
Yet it did not seem that the audience grasped Jesus’ teaching on the foundational challenge of how one can integrate earthly matters, in this case taxes, within the commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). The verse following this Sunday’s Gospel tells us that, “When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away” (Matthew 22:22).
No hearing, no learning, no reflection of what the teaching would mean in practice, no probing about whose image is imprinted on us, and no recognition of the common ground for the one people divided into tribes of religious teachers and politicos. To the person the questioners described as “truthful”, “[teaching] the way of God in accordance with the truth”, and “not concerned with anyone's opinion”, they closed their hearts. They were more overcome (“amazed”) by Jesus’ verbal acuity, mental deftness, and dexterity as an escape artist. Round one: Jesus, 1; Those Who Know Better, 0. More rounds would follow.
Two thousand plus years later, our public discourses demonstrate similar characteristics: winning and trapping the other as key objectives; listening for the offending words or “gotcha” phrases. We use words as spears, praise as bait, and problems as battle grounds. The people who disagree with our political choices are demonized. Under labels of “blue”, “red”, “conservative”, “liberal”, etc., our neighbours, friends, and fellow parishioners are reduced to a one-dimensional utility as votes that are either with us or against us.
Some self-labeled “Christian” blogs, radio broadcasts, websites, and influencers tear at people with venom, viciousness, and ferocity that evoke the spectacle of lions pounding on the early Christians in the Colosseum. Revenues are generated through subscriptions, donations, or advertising as these public lashings invite other Christians’ complicit engagement in name calling, ruinous characterizations, deliberate half-truths and mis-information to vanquish people and reputations, all in the name of protecting the truth.
The tragedy of this modern day blood sport is that the positions that divide us usually pertain to very real problems and deeply cherished values. We live in a complicated world evolving at a speed that outpaces our collective understanding, reflection, appraisal of what we gain and what we lose in the totality of life beyond conveniences and lifesaving cures, attention to who bears the losses and reaps the gain, who is left behind and what is left behind, and gentleness for the anguish from losing our footing of identity and notions of right and wrong.
Anxiety, fear, disappointment, and anger got the better of us. Instead of turning to each other with patience, humility and respect to talk, listen, forge creative win-win solutions, and affirm first principles, we turn against each other. When what we most need are patience, charity, openness, and empathy, we judge, condemn, and draw battle lines. We pitch fights between my “good” and your “evil”. We focus only on our fears and forget our shared humanity as people with dreams, need for belonging, hunger for dignity and security, and reassurance against the terror of being left on our own. We dismiss our common frailties, ever present pride, contradictions, as well as the constructive power of our God-given intelligence and talents.
When we are bent only on winning and vanquishing, even when God speaks to us we can no longer hear. And God speaks so clearly and frequently in the suffering, pain, losses, grief, hunger, fear, and loneliness of people. We cannot throw up our hands on each other because God made us each other’s best hope in the flesh. In God’s kingdom, even the earthly one, we are not each other’s enemies but mostly good people unprepared for change, uncertain about our futures, and unschooled in sorting out competing good. And when our hearts tune in, we will hear pain beneath intransigence, loss hardened into anger, and powerlessness as cataracts obscuring hope.
Pain, loss, and powerlessness bear the image of God. Let us give these to God who can make good of everything. Let us do this with our arms around each other. Jesus and us, 1; paralyzing divisiveness, 0.
The readings for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, are
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Dr. Carolyn Woo served as the dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame (1997-2011) before she took on the role of President and Chief Executive Officer at Catholic Relief Services (2012-2016). Her expertise lies in the areas of strategy, leadership, and transformation. She is currently working on a book on women's leadership in Cathoic ministries.