Monday, October 17, 2011

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Some people came to see Jesus. They didn’t like the politicians in charge of their country and they didn’t like the taxes that the politicians were making them pay, but they were afraid to say so.

I often find this. People used to come into my office in Toy Town to complain about this or that, and I would tell them, ‘Well, you need to write to your councillors, or give them a ring. Here’s their number. Here’s their email address.’

‘Oh, I’m not sure about that!’ they would say, as if they were afraid that if they made a complaint then the Special Branch of the police would come knocking on their door or open a file on them marked ‘Troublemakers’. But if we only grumble about things and never do anything about our grumbles, how can we expect things to change?

Of course, what people really wanted me to do was make their complaint for them, but that’s not how democracy works. We have to stand up and be counted if we want to change the world.

The people who came to Jesus were afraid to do that. They wanted things to change, but they wanted Jesus to sort the world out for them. And, of course, the society he lived in wasn’t a democracy like ours. The politicians of the day took a dim view of complainers, so they were asking him either to be very brave or very foolish - like the people protesting for change in Syria.

Jesus asked for a coin and asked the people whose picture was on it. ‘The Roman Emperor’s,’ they replied. ‘And what have the Romans ever done for us?’ Jesus asked. ‘Well they said, the Romans have given us aqueducts and sewers and roads. They’ve made the streets safe to walk in at night and they’ve brought us peace.’ ‘In that case,’ said Jesus, ‘If the Emperor asks you to pay taxes, shouldn’t you give him back some of the money you’ve received so that he can pay for those things?’

Politicians, or the organisations they run anyway - like councils or government departments, do a lot of good and I find that by and large the politicians are usually keen to help us if we ask them and if it’s in their power to do so. If they make a mistake, it’s usually by promising rather more help than they can actually deliver! But - with some exceptions - they don’t usually ignore people or refuse to help them.

Some time ago I was sent a circular by a council department called Buy For Toy Town, inviting me to bid to carry out a piece of research work. My understanding was that the Toy Town council had decided, whenever it could, to buy the things it needed from people who were working in Toy Town instead of buying them from people who worked outside. Of course, they could only do this if the things were good enough, but I thought our research would be good enough so I submitted a bid.

When the short-list was drawn up you can imagine how disappointed I was, to find that no one from Toy Town was on it, so I asked why not. The man in charge of Buy For Toy Town said, ‘Ah well, Buy For Toy Town really means, “Tell organisations in Toy Town that we’re going to be buying something,” it doesn’t mean we actually have to try and buy anything from people who work in Toy Town.’

Now I never take ‘no’ for an answer, so I wrote to the councillor in charge of Business, Jobs and growth in Toy Town and asked her what she thought Buy Four Toy Town should mean, and she decided to hold a meeting with the man in charge, to see if he could explain it better to her. I don't know how successful she was, sometimes changes in council policy can be very subtle and somewhat opaque, but councillors do try to be helpful. We can’t complain about them, or the policies carried out in their names, if we don’t give them a chance to put things right.

But Jesus went on to say something else. He said we should also give to God whatever belongs to God. It’s God who has really given us everything we enjoy, so we have a duty to be grateful to him and to stand up for what he wants to happen. And God wants everyone to be just, and merciful, and kind, and generous. So we have a duty to keep on saying that’s how our world should be, and working to change it.

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