Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle Him in His talk. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought Him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left Him and went away.
This unit, which will finish shortly, as we approach the start of Great Lent, has been reflections based on reactions to a survey I sent out last fall about where we are in faith and where we want to be. I’m reacting to comments and questions that came about because of that survey. Some of the questions have been difficult ones to discuss, as several are topics that I generally try to stay away from, including the one for today. Several people have asked me about this topic, so here is my honest response.
Politics seem to dominate many segments of our lives. Tune into Fox News and then to CNN and each paints an entirely different picture of our country. Politics has become like a boxing match between two heavyweight fighters, each one sure that their side is right and will win.
I heard a priest preach on the above Scripture passage who said that in the world today, we are rendering to Caesar not only the things that are Caesar’s but we are rendering to Caesar the things that are God’s. And that’s a dangerous place to live. And he’s right!
There are several things that politicians argue about that actually cross the line into the spiritual arena. Let’s look at one area that most people don’t think about. Before FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, public welfare was the purview of the churches. It was the churches who were feeding the homeless and helping the downtrodden. Because churches have always operated in the United States based on the voluntary contributions of the faithful, when the Great Depression hit in 1929 and the years following, it stands to reason that the churches struggled financially, as did their members, and most likely their ability to help those in need struggled as well. Then, when the New Deal came into being, welfare began to be taken care of by the state. One of the greatest arguments in politics is exactly how much welfare should be given to those in need. It’s a big argument, and it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t a debate 100 years ago. We will probably never get back to the point where the churches are again taking care of public welfare, both because the government will not release that to the churches and sadly, because the churches probably wouldn’t want that. This is an argument that will be perpetuated permanently, sadly.
The second political are that has spilled into the churches has to do with the value of human life. Somehow, we’re redefining what life is, and what gender is. In Genesis 1:26-27, we read about the creation of human beings. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
It is interesting to note that the Greek word for “image” is “eikona” which is the same word we translate as “icon.” In other words, when God created human beings, He said “Let us make man as an icon of God.” Reading Genesis 1:27 with this in mind, we would read “So God created man as an icon of Himself, as an icon of God He created him; male and female He created them as icons of Himself.” And because we can’t assign a value to God, He’s infinite, then we can’t assign a value to ourselves. We are of infinite value. And we can’t value one human being above another because we are all of infinite value to God and infinity equals infinity is an impossible equation. The other thing we learn here is that God deliberately made men and women. Our life offers us a lot of choices. We will lean towards certain things based on our talents. God puts a divine imprint on each person, in the form of certain talents that each has. Why God called me to be a priest and not a rocket scientist, I’ll have to ask Him when I get there. But He has put a divine imprint on everyone, and this includes their gender. The Bible doesn’t say God created human beings and they chose their genders. It says He created male and female—our gender is part of His divine imprint on us.
In Genesis 2:7, we read another account of the creation: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” The only problem with this is that the word translated as “Breath” is the word “pnevma” which we translate as “spirit.” God made man from the dust and put His spirit into Him. This affects when life begins and ends. Life begins with the presence of a soul (our spirit, our divine imprint), which is present from conception. No human life can begin without the presence of God. Male matter, female matter, and God’s divine Spirit come together to form a life. Therefore, the disposing of life is a heavy decision that can only be considered under the narrowest of circumstances, not in the haphazard (and sadly, even triumphant, it’s my right) way it seems to be done today.
God gave man free will. There is no question. But He also set a parameter on our freedom, but not our free will. In the Garden of Eden, one tree was off limits. We used our free will to make a choice that resulted in the Fall. In life after the Fall, we still have free will, as well as freedom. However, misuse of our freedom has consequences. If we harm or kill someone, if we do something that society defines as a crime, there are criminal consequences. If we violate one of God’s laws, even though it may not be against man’s law, there is a moral consequence, which is the judgment of God, as well as personal shame. In my years as a priest, I have ministered to many people who have made moral choices that are endorsed by society which have brought them feelings of unbelievable shame, that they carry for years before they finally end up sharing it with me. It is our right to choose all kinds of things, but those things come with consequences—and sometimes those consequences are private suffering and shame.
This is a little bit longer than my usual reflection. So I’ll stop shortly. It’s hard to see the divine imprint of God on us when they are all riled up protesting and bickering. We don’t appear as icons of God when we act like this. It’s hard to watch each political party proclaim themselves as doing nothing wrong and the other party as doing nothing right. No one is without value—so no one does nothing right. And no one is without sin—so no one does nothing wrong. It’s hard to watch people side with the adherents of one party and against the other. It is sad that we don’t see others as icons of Christ. And what is most sad is that we don’t see ourselves as images of God. We see value in self-aggrandizement, freedom and rights and have totally lost humility. We’ve forgotten how to disagree respectfully, we’ve forgotten how to forgive, we’ve forgotten how to ask for forgiveness.
In every Divine Liturgy and in many other services, we pray for those who lead us. And that is the prayer today.
For our country, our President and all those in civil authority and public service, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
And for all those in public service, permit them, Lord, to serve and govern in peace that through the faithful conduct of their duties we may live peaceful and serene lives in all piety and holiness. Amen. (from the Divine Liturgy)
I try to stick to truth in my writings and leave politics out of it. And even truth is getting political. I pray that this reflection hasn’t offended anyone. I try to speak the truth in love and with some humility. Forgive me if I haven’t today.
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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