The controversy of the church’s evangelizing mission
Today the church observes World Mission Sunday. Every year, on the second-to-last Sunday of October, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith supports the church’s missionary work through prayer and sacrifice. In many places, this includes a special intention for the mass and a second collection to support evangelization efforts. Today’s focus is one way the church remembers to fulfill the great commission that Jesus gives the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).
Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (Mt 22:21)
What have we learned from past evangelization?
Can you be an example of respect and friendship to people outside your comfort zone?
How can you participate in the mission of the Church to “go out to all peoples?”
To look outwards, towards the edges of the world and to all cultures, is an essential part of the evangelizing mission. If the church has a mission statement, it might be to reach the ends of the world with the good news of Christ’s victory over death. Since the time of the early Christians, however, this effort was not without controversy, as the book of the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates. Likewise, in our own day, many missionary efforts of the recent past now appear scandalous.
Among the Salish people on the Flathead Indian Reservation where I live, missionary efforts are interwoven with the history, politics and spirituality of the local culture. History reveals that missionary activity among this tribe was part of a wider federal agenda intent on a gradual removal of the indigenous way-of-life. If the church can learn any lesson from its past evangelization efforts, it is to form a new way of thinking about missionary activity. Evangelization must foremost promote friendship and respect. World Mission Sunday provides an opportunity to pray about a new way of being in order to share the message that we celebrate.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading highlights the fine line between accommodating the dominant culture and challenging it. A political faction, the Herodians, and a religious faction, the Pharisees, raise the controversial topic of loyalty. Can a person serve God and the Roman emperor equally? Jesus provides the response, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21). This is not a pithy witticism suggesting a kind of separation between church and state as we have in our own era. On the contrary, in the time of Jesus, the office of Caesar represented a synthesis of religious and political power. The image and inscription on the Roman coin mentioned in this Gospel reading would have said clearly, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.” The Roman emperors were believed to have been chosen by the gods. They bore divine characteristics that other citizens did not share.
To look outwards, towards the edges of the world and to all cultures, is an essential part of the evangelizing mission.
The aim of the Roman emperors was to control the entire known world, and each emperor tried to push Rome’s boundaries farther. By honoring the office of Caesar, the empire hoped to synthesize its religious and political institutions. Jesus’ response, therefore, suggests not so much the separation of church and state but a conflict of loyalty between them. “When they heard this,” writes Matthew of the Herodians and Pharisees, “they were amazed” (Mt 22:22). Jesus’ “opponents” understood that they were being challenged either to support the expanding Roman Empire or the eternal reign of the God of Israel.
Jesus takes a practical approach and accommodates the office of Caesar by insisting that Rome ought to receive a census tax from its subjects. Meanwhile, at the level of one’s deepest loyalty within these competing power structures, Matthew provides the answer later in this chapter, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). Not much is left for Caesar, besides his imperial coins.
This is what World Mission Sunday continues to promote and celebrate. The church can advance a message deeper than the agendas of rulers and empires. Today’s evangelization efforts differ from previous colonization-modeled missionary activity by allowing respect and friendship to take precedence. Forms of this style of “amicable missiology” existed in the past, but such an effort is essential today. The best support we can give to today’s evangelizing work is to learn from our past, give all our efforts to God and respect the freedom of those we approach as friends.