This Sunday’s Gospel is interesting not just for the principle —“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”—but also for the context.
The Pharisees were interested not so much in knowing the truth, as in trapping Christ with trick question on the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar.
If Christ answered “yes,” he would be demonized among the Jews as a supporter of the colonizers. If he answered “no,” he would be accused of being a rebel against the Romans.
Christ resets the context, goes to an even more fundamental level and turns the table on the Pharisees. He goes back to a basic principle, a core value.
By bringing the discourse to the realm of basic principles or core values, Christ changes the context and enters the realm of truth where there’s no use equivocating.
Let us reflect on two domains, the church and secular politics.
In the church domain, we have two very similar examples or stories, the story of Pope Francis and the story of St. Pope John XXIII. Both Popes shift from the dogmatic to the pastoral.
In the secular politics domain, we have the campaign stories of former US President Barack Obama and President Duterte. Both used the power of the narrative to define the context of the campaign and eventually won the elections.
Pope John XXIII was elected Pope at age 77 and was looked up as an interim pope whose term would be “brief and uneventful.” Elected on October 1958, Pope John XXIII died in June 1963, almost 5 months short of a five-year term. Yet, the brief reign brought about one of the greatest shifts in the modern Catholic Church, if not in its entire history.
The same can be said of Pope Francis. Elected at age 76, he has set the Catholic Church on a steady path of renewal toward being a more merciful and compassionate church.
Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis redefined the context of the Church by bringing it back to the original inspiration of its founder.
“It is mercy that I demand, not sacrifice.” This mercy Christ demanded, he lived out in a life of compassionate service, especially for the least and most marginalized in society.
The process was to return to Christ and the substance was Christ, his person and his love. The truth merged in form and substance in Christ.
In the case of Obama, his campaign in the 2008 elections was pretty much anchored on his story: the African American who embodied the American dream. This narrative gave hope to many and was galvanized by his campaign slogan, “Yes, we can.”
The form, the process, brought the story back to the American dream. The substance was the story of Obama: a man from the once enslaved ethnic group could become the President of the United States.
Fast forward almost eight years, Duterte wins the presidential race, a come-from-behind victory. Again, using the power of the narrative, he redefines the context of the race.
It is interesting to note that months, over a year, before the 2016 elections, the number one concern of majority of the people were jobs. The issue of peace and order (and drugs) was around fifth or seventh. (I am told that jobs remain the number one concern.)
As we say in fundraising, peace and order (drugs) were “sexy” causes or issues that capture the imagination and hearts of the people. Throw in the synthesizing and galvanizing element, “Change is coming,” and you have a powerful narrative that propelled Duterte to victory.
Professor Randy David clearly analyzed in his column last Sunday that Duterte has changed our sociopolitical landscape, and anybody who wishes to succeed him or be an effective fiscalizer must use the same framework, or narrative.
I end with Ignatius of Loyola’s wise counsel to the early Jesuits: If they want to influence people, they must enter their door (their world and context) and take them out (or journey with them from your door)—the shared dream and hope.
Christ was and still is the embodiment of this process way before Ignatius, Pope John XXIII, Pope Francis, Obama or Duterte. His was the most effective use of this and, because theirs was an imitation of Christ, so was Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis’ use of the process.
Christ understood the story of the Pharisees, repudiated it, and presented a stronger paradigm people could embrace.
He lived compassion, entered the world of people; their chaos of poverty and injustice, inequality and tyranny, broken dreams and frustrated hopes. In His person and life he proved, “Yes, you and I, we can because God loves us and nothing else matters.” Let us, especially our leaders, learn from him.