Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

I don't believe in an interventionist God

Matthew 28.1-10, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 I like Nick Cave’s song because of its audacious first line: ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’. What an unlikely way to begin a love song! He once explained that he wrote the song while sitting at the back of an Anglican church where he had gone with his wife Susie, who presumably does believe in an interventionist God - at least that’s what the song says. Actually Cave has always been very interested in religion. Sometimes he calls himself a Christian, sometimes he doesn’t, depending on how the mood takes him. He once said, ‘I believe in God in spite of religion, not because of it.’ But his lyrics often include religious themes and he has also said that any true love song is a song for God. So maybe it’s no coincidence that he began this song in such an unlikely way, although he says the inspiration came to him during the sermon. The vicar was droning on about something when the first line of the song just popped into his head. I suspect …

Why are good people tempted to do wrong?

Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, 1 Corinthians 3.1-4, Matthew 5.21-37 Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong. We tell ourselves that there are some people whose motives are totally wicked or self-regarding: criminals, liars, cheats, two-timers, fraudsters, and so on, but we are not that kind of person. We’re basically good people who just indulge in an occasional misdemeanour. So, for example, there’s Noble Cause Corruption, a phrase first coined apparently in 1992 to explain why police officers, judges, politicians, managers, teachers, social workers and so on sometimes get sucked into justifying actions which are really totally wrong, but on the grounds that they are doing them for a very good reason. A famous instance of noble cause corruption is the statement, by the late Lord Denni…

Giotto’s Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds

John 1.10-18
In the week before Christmas the BBC broadcast a modern version of The Nativity which attempted to retell the story with as much psychological realism as possible. So, for instance, viewers saw how Mary, and Joseph especially, struggled with their feelings.

But telling the story of Jesus with psychological realism is not a new idea. It has a long tradition going back seven hundred years to the time of the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone. This nativity scene was painted in a church in Padua in about 1305. Much imitated it is one of the first attempts at psychological realism in Christian art. And what a wonderful first attempt it is - a work of genius, in fact!

Whereas previously Mary and the Baby Jesus had been depicted facing outwards, or looking at their visitors, with beatific expressions fixed on their faces, Giotto dares to show them staring intently into one another’s eyes, bonding like any mother and newborn baby. Joseph, in contrast, is not looking on with quiet app…