One Friday evening, at the end of the 6th week of the my online semester and who knows how many weeks of this pandemic, I turned to my husband and asked, "It this what the end time feels like like?”
Before he could answer, I rattled off a litany of evidence: nearly 200,000 Americans killed by Covid, fires out of control in California, hurricanes churning in the Gulf, new protests over police involved shootings of unarmed Black citizens and lack of convictions in related cased, grief over the of icons for justice still fresh, months of being isolated from family members either aging or coming of age.
“Seriously, is this the end time?” I repeated defeatedly.
"No it isn’t, hon,” my ever-optimistic husband replied. "It’s the beginning.”
I paused and looked at him incredulously. I initially chalked up his response to the generational difference between us - he went to Woodstock and remembers the Kennedy and King assassinations, so he has experienced more of the moral arc of the universe than me. “So you mean it’s the beginning of the end?” Clearly, I wasn’t buying it.
Today’s Gospel, one of the most challenging exchanges of the New Testament, especially just weeks away from a presidential election to end all presidential elections, points to the impasse I was feeling. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ interaction with the religious leadership of his day comes as his public ministry has made a turn toward his own final days in Jerusalem. Trying to build a case against Jesus, they force him into a no-win situation by presenting him the ultimate symbol of people’s oppression: a Roman coin stamped with the likeness of the Emperor. If Jesus agrees to its significance, he is a religious heretic. If he denies its significance he is a political traitor.
Returning that conversation about the end of days, I found my husband’s answer as unsatisfactory as I usually find Jesus' oft-quoted response - “give to Cesar what belongs to Cesar and to God what belongs to God.” Perhaps that’s because I feel as though I can identify with the followers of Jesus in first century Palestine. Like them, I worry about the impact of the growing divide between those who have and those who do not, I want control over things that are happening to me, I am losing sleep about a future that feels increasingly apocalyptic; I am growing impatient with promises that are still unfulfilled. I want something more substantive from Jesus.
Here was his chance to say this must end, to place the blame where it belonged, and to kick start his revolution. Moreover, here was Jesus' chance to give those of us who follow him more than 2,000 years later the mic drop language we reach for when reacting to increasingly untenable socio-economic circumstances. In the midst of the polarizing swirl then and now—a swirl with life or death implications for real people—"Give Cesar unto Cesar what is Cesar’s” sounds sorely inadequate and dangerously apathetic.
But then, upon closer reflection, my initial sense of Jesus’ inadequacy reveals the limits of my own thinking, or the empire thinking with which the religious authority hoped to entrap Jesus. The institutions that exercised power over people in Jesus' day – and those in our own – trap us with the exhausting logic, dispositions, and habits of empire. They tell us that the outcomes we are experiencing are unavoidable, that there is no other way but this way, that resisting is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t conundrum. Theirs is an inertia that comes with working within the parameters of broken systems.
But in Jesus' brief exchange, today we see that wasn’t having it. Rather he embodies the wisdom I once saw on sign outside a church in Manhattan: “better to shun the bait than struggle in the snare.”
Jesus doesn’t take the bait, perhaps because he remembers God’s message that comes to us today from Isaiah: I have chosen you, I have called you by name, I have armed you, and “there is no one except me.” I Am Who Am does this choosing, does this calling, does this arming. We aren’t chosen by the authority figures of empires, no matter what religious or political guises they moralize with or campaign in or what certainties they claim to offer or platitudes they attempt to ply us with. We are chosen by God. And the God who chooses us has a dream for us—the individual us and the collective us—that surpasses the imagination of empire. A good friend and Catholic educator from Melbourne Australia recently advised me, “don’t go looking for solutions in the problem.” In other words, empire thinking will not solve the problems of empires. I suspect that’s what Jesus is getting at. Reject the premise of their conundra and solve for what we know to be true: God abides in us and readies us to love in the chaos of empire. The rest is just the snare.
So coming back to that conversation with my husband, no matter how challenging or bleak or despairing or draining these times they may be, we are not experiencing the end of days. If we remember who has chosen us, who calls forth, and readies us, then in fact we’re at “the beginning of the beginning."
Maureen H. O’Connell is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics in the Department of Religion and Theology at La Salle University. She holds a BA in History from Saint Joseph’s University and a PhD in Theological Ethics from Boston College. She authored Compassion: Loving Our Neighbor in an Age of Globalization (Orbis Books, 2009) and If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice (The Liturgical Press, 2012), which won the College Theology Book of the Year Award in 2012 and the Catholic Press Association’s first place for books in theology in 2012. Her current research project will be forthcoming with Beacon Press in 2021 and explores the interplay between being Catholic and “becoming anti-black” across five generations of her family’s history in the City of Philadelphia. She received the Distinguished Lasallian Educator award in 2017 from both La Salle University and from the District of North Eastern North America, one of the provinces of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. She is a member of the national Lasallian Education Council, where she chairs a national ad hoc committee on advocacy. She is a member of POWER (Philadelphians Organizing to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild), an interfaith coalition of more than 50 congregations committed to making Philadelphia the city of “just love” through community organizing. She serves the Board for the Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies; Cranaleith Spiritual Center, a ministry of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Northeast Philadelphia; and Rosemont College, where she is a member of the President’s Commission on the Legacy of Slavery.
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