*From the hymn by John Oldham © 1995
Jesus always has a vision. He probably has visions, too, but I mean he has a vision of what things ought to be and how we can get there. Yes, “can.” I don’t for a minute think Jesus thought we aren’t capable of the love, grace, compassion and, yes, righteousness he taught. He tried to show us that we, too, are divine and human, and he literally lived and modelled it for us in a way that demonstrated his belief in us.
So it always bothers me when people try separating things into the spiritual and earthly, as if those things aren’t – or shouldn’t be – connected. (I wanted to say it surprises me, but it doesn’t anymore.) They are. Perhaps if we leaned into that a bit more, we might find it easier to see the Jesus in each other, and all around us, and see just how life-giving it is.
Take politics, for instance. Yes, politics. (Don’t stop reading now, I’m almost there.)
By all means, separate church and state. Keep religion out of politics. And politics out of religion, I hope. If, like most, you believe that religion and politics are the very human and very fallible structures that we’ve built, please, keep them apart. If you see them as being about partisanship, power, control, management, uniformity, or even more cynical things, please: keep them apart. They’ll only hurt each other.
But if, like Jesus, you might view this differently and you might see it, instead, as the interconnectedness of God – or however you know that life-giving force of love that I’d call God – with something more akin to “ubuntu” or the people in relationship as a caring community, well, that can be a different thing. That’s the kingdom of heaven Jesus is always talking about.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all relate a story in which religious leaders tried to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes. Should the people pay taxes to the Roman emperor, or not? If he says no, he risks being reported to the state authorities and being arrested. If he say yes, he risks alienating all the people. It’s a trick question. There’s no way Jesus can answer it that they can’t claim a victory.
Except there is: Jesus asks to see a coin and, showing the image of the emperor on it, he says “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.”
Clever Jesus, we traditionally think. But I don’t think Jesus meant to be clever, I just think he answered sincerely. They just weren’t all on the same page. And we’re not either.
I think the religious leaders saw this as an either/or option only, just as we do today. But for Jesus, God is in all things, especially us. It might have been Caesar’s image on the coin, but we are created in the image of God. And the earth. Divine and human. It’s not separate, it’s connected; it’s not an either/or, it’s and “and.”
It might seem to us that we’re far from the kingdom of heaven Jesus envisioned. But maybe that’s part of the point of Jesus and other great figures of love and grace and “godliness.” We live in the world of our making and God’s. Again, however we might know God, there is divine and “earthy” in all things. The structures we might build around our beliefs and our societies are meant to help us understand and engage those things better, to grow and give them life. Ok, so they’re not always doing that. But we could try and see them differently, maybe with Jesus eyes.