One of the biggest challenges we Christians face is how to live in the world, and be a full part of the world, and yet not be worldly – to be taken over by the world with all its many faults and temptations. Some Christians have solved this problem by separating themselves as far as possible from the world around them. For example, from very early on, there were men and women – later called monks and nuns – who chose to live separately from the world, and there have been other Christian groups down the ages who in different ways have tried to do the same.
But for most of us this is just not a practical solution. We have to live in a world in which we must mix with all sorts of people, and some of them have the kind of lifestyle that would make any good Christian shudder. We all know that it’s almost impossible to watch TV without seeing things that are simply not good – whether it is explicit sex or an obsession with money and possessions.
Jesus had the same challenge. Many of his fellow Jews chose the way of cutting themselves off as much as possible from those who lived a worldly life-style. They refused to eat with them and felt that if they even touched them then they were polluted and would need purification. These polluted people included everyone who mixed with or worked for the Romans and their soldiers, which clearly included prostitutes and tax collectors.
As you know, Jesus chooses to do quite the opposite, and because of this is accused, not only of mixing with these polluted people, but agreeing with their way of living. It’s a fair criticism, isn’t it? If you are prepared to live and eat with such people, are you not by implication approving of the way they live? Surely if you don’t approve of the way certain people behave, you should say so, and refuse to mix with them?
Pope Francis has this problem too. He gets accused by some of watering down the moral teachings of the Church, because of the way he stresses that God’s mercy and love is available for everyone, even notorious sinners. Recently he told the story of a priest who was prepared to baptize the baby of a divorced man, but had said that the man could not attend the ceremony. Pope Francis made it clear that he disagreed with this priest and would have made the man welcome. Most people would agree with Pope Francis’ approach in a situation like this, but what about a more extreme case like a father involved in violent crime? Think how the Church in Sicily is sometimes accused of condoning the Mafia when it does not bar such men from the Church.
So the question put to Jesus in today’s Gospel, (Matt 22:15-21) where they ask him whether people should pay money to the Romans, is not just about money. It is also about his whole approach to the world around him. The purists are challenging him to take sides. Is he for the world of the Romans and the rest of the pagan world? Or is he for God? His answer is to refuse to take sides, to put people into two camps, good holy people on the one side, and bad worldly people on the other. Instead he says : Decide for yourself. Each of us must work out in our own situation where to draw the line. A classic example is going to a party. Jesus goes to parties all the time with a lot of drinking, and probably quite a lot of swearing and suggestive remarks and behaviour. The Greco-Roman world, like our world, was fairly explicit about such things. Somehow good Christian people, especially young people, have to be happy to go to parties, and yet manage to stay sober, to keep themselves pure, and to avoid getting into loose talk and gossip. It’s a tall order and many people fail, so no wonder the other solution of keeping oneself separate is often suggested.
Some Catholics wish that everything was cut and dried, that the Church could make absolutely clear what is right and what is wrong, and then act towards those who are wrong in a way that makes absolutely clear what we think of them. But the Church’s task is to draw all men and women to God. That is why when Jesus is criticised for mixing with bad people he points out again and again that his mission is to sinners. Think of the story of the nasty tax collector Zacchaeus up the tree. Jesus doesn’t look up and say “Zacchaeus change your ways, and then I will come and eat with you.” No, he simply says he will come and eat with him, as he did with so many other so-called sinners. Some, like Zacchaeus, do change their ways, but whether they do or not, Jesus shows them that God loves them. Despite the risks, we must do the same.