By: Rev. Fr. Sylvanus AMEH
Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
Every human being is by nature, both spiritual and political. God has made our nature in such a manner that we are both drawn to him and drawn to society at the same time. Thus, whether we want it or not, whether we decide on it or not, whether we acknowledge or deny it, we are both simultaneously affected by God and by society. This is an inescapable reality for us for as long as we breathe. It is therefore pertinent that we give the required attention to the things of both domains of our existence.
This reality is clearly demonstrated to us today in the readings of today’s Mass, especially the first and gospel readings, with greater clarity in the gospel reading. The first reading is a narration of how God used Cyrus, king of Persia to liberate the Israelites from their exile in Babylon. This event was both political and spiritual for the Israelites – political because it meant an end to foreign domination over them and a return to their homeland where they can continue with their political life; spiritual because it meant they were returning to union with their revered temple, the symbol of God’s presence with them. Though king Cyrus did not know the one true God, God used him to not only bring liberation to the Israelites, but also to provide for them in their effort of rebuilding the temple at Jerusalem.
In the gospel reading, we read of the plot by the Herodians and the Pharisees to entrap Jesus by asking him a dubious question with no easy answer. In fact, that question humanly speaking, has no answer. To understand the treachery of that question, we first need to know the people who were asking. The Herodians were Jews who were very okay with the Roman domination of Palestine and saw nothing wrong with the taxes the average Jew detested paying. The Pharisees on the other hand, were very religious Jews who hated the fact that the Romans were in their land and ruling them. These two groups, ordinarily speaking, were not friendly with each other; however, for the purpose of ensnaring Jesus, they formed an unholy alliance. So, when they asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, whichever way Jesus turned would have landed him in trouble. If he said it was lawful, the Pharisees would stir up the Jews against him; if he said it was unlawful, the Herodians would bring down the might of the Romans on him. But Jesus’ answer, as we heard it, to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”, caught them off guard. Indeed, they never expected it. By asking for the coin used in paying the tax, a denarius which had the image and name of Caesar, Jesus turned the table on them, for by possessing that coin, they already accepted his rule over them.
This answer from Jesus again shows to us that even today, as we gather here this morning, God expects us to be both Christian and civil. In other words, we have certain obligations towards God, and we have certain obligations towards the State. We cannot divorce one from the other. We cannot be too religious not to get involved in the affairs of the State, neither can we be too secular not to give reverence to God. Thus, we must be Christian, we must be civil. To God, we owe the duty of reverence, obedience to his commands, faithfulness, being the face of love and mercy to our neighbours, living in righteousness, promoting the work of mission, etc. To the State, we owe the duty of payment of taxes, obedience to the laws of the land, taking active part in civil affairs, etc.
In the light of the above, these last two weeks have been full of events in our country calling us to be Christian and civil. Issues bothering on our national life have taken the center stage of almost everything with the #ENDSARS campaign. With thousands of youths taking part in the protests sweeping through the country like a train on fire whose brakes have failed, youths who, with the slogan of #ENDSARS are demanding for a better Nigeria, I say there is no better time as Nigerians to be Christian and be civil than now. A lot of Christians have questioned the rightness of the ongoing protests, especially after the perfidious kangaroo move by the government through the Inspector General of Police claiming to have disbanded SARS, only to hurriedly rename it SWAT. The protesters have remained undeterred and have refused to be deceived, especially by a government that has a proclivity for lies and deceit. Fortunately, the religious and ethnic cards with which they have always kept the masses divided have been burnt to ashes, so the unity of purpose is now the strength and life-wire of the protests.
In his message for World Mission Sunday (2020), Pope Francis wrote, “We are indeed frightened, disoriented and afraid. Pain and death make us experience our human frailty, but at the same time remind us of our deep desire for life and liberation from evil.” These words are indeed divinely inspired because they speak directly to the situation of the times in our country. These words remind us that as a people, we are truly “frightened, disoriented and afraid”, battered by the systemic evil of maladministration we have experienced for decades under people whose individual interests have consistently superseded the common good. These have brought us nothing but pain and death, and because we are not only Christians but also civil, we ought to raise our voices and condemn the evil of bad leadership in our land, expressed in its worst form under this present regime. The #ENDSARS campaign/protests should therefore be our collective resolve to demand for a better life and liberation from evil, as the Holy Father said.
Today, dear friends, we are reminded that our religious inclinations do not take away our social responsibilities. That we are Christians does not mean that we should not be involved in the activities of the State. If we do not play our roles as responsible citizens, then we, by our inactions, pave way for the creation of an atmosphere in which even worship of God will prove difficult. Today, we remember the souls of all those who have lost their lives to the brutality of all security agents; we pray for the many more who have died due to executive rascality and legislative wastefulness, that God may grant them eternal rest and console their families. And for all those on the streets protesting, may God keep them safe. For the many people behind the scenes who are providing support and sustenance for the protesters, may God bless them all. And for those who feel it is a sin to join the protest, may God forgive them for keeping quiet when they should be speaking out. Amen.