“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”
Romans 13: 1-7
For the last two weeks I have been interpreting this very onerous, vexing, and annoying passage from Romans 13. The verse, “the powers that be are ordained of God…” has been taken to mean that the Caesar, the King, the President, or “we the people” have the eternal power of Almighty God behind his or her or our temporal power therefore the temporal ruler should never be resisted because it is equivalent to resisting God. From there theologians and rulers have extrapolated such things as the divine rights of kings, which Luther used to justify the slaughter of 100,000 peasants in Germany, Queen Elizabeth did the same in Ireland, besides divine rights, other concepts such as just war, utopianism, and the two kingdoms theory have been deduced from syllogisms formed from this passage. Furthermore, notion of the divine rights of Caesar or the king lead to Niccolo Machiavelli to standardize what everyone already considered the givenness of the ruler to be: he or she is “sui generis,” a person “of its own kind,” which means one of a kind, not in the category of being a mere person, but one for whom the canons of written law, common law, or common decency do not apply. And all that has been extrapolated from the phrase “the powers that be are ordained of God…” But there is at least as much weight in that phrase on the dependance and source of Caesar’s authority as there is on fact of his authority. Still the history of the interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 has nearly always tipped the scales (and it still does) in favor of placing the emphasis upon authority. That became more and more the case after the last ecumenical council and we know that prior to the Seventh Council, as we saw last week with Bishop Ambrose of Milan , Caesar’s God-given authority does not excuse him from obedience to the Law of Christ, but his God-given authority actually enlarges his responsibilities to esteem and act upon the values of the Kingdom of Christ. And it ought not to go unnoticed that the Fathers of the Church emphasized the fatherly qualities, the qualities of the husband, to be necessary for the ruler to exercise authority in a manner pleasing to Christ.
But if Romans 13 is not meant to focus upon Caesar what does Paul mean? That is a fair question and frankly not all that difficult to answer. If Paul is attentive to Caesar (and he is, devoting five clauses to the temporal ruler), then he is even more attentive to the behavior of Christians (devoting seven clauses to the subjects) within Caesar’s temporal realm. And I submit to you that is it, the Christian subject’s behavior within Caesar’s realm, that should get our attention as well. What Paul is saying here and in other epistles, as well as what Peter says in his epistles, and I am now applying this to all of us – What he is saying is that the Church of God is to work as best as it can within whatever political system she is placed, pray for those who are in authority, pay your taxes, obey the laws of the commonwealth, live decently so that non-Christians will have a high opinion of the Church; value, honor, esteem all human beings and that includes Caesar. If you live that way as individuals and collectively as the Church you may just have a little peace and some tranquility in this life; and then again, you may not have much peace of tranquility in this life. But our personal or even our collective temporal peace and tranquility is not the goal. The two main reasons that Paul cites for living according to the interpretation I am proposing to you of Romans 13:1-7 are (1) to show non-Christians that we Catholics individually and collectively are not meant to destroy the order of Caesar’s realm and we can be good citizens within limits, and (2) to live in temporal peace and tranquility. The final cause, the supreme goal of these two ends is the evangelical mission of the Church, that all may come to know the eternal, saving power of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The part that Caesar may play is the part that we pray for at every mass when we say:
“We beseech thee also, so to direct and dispose the hearts of all Christian Rulers, that they may truly and impartially administer justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.”
Of course Paul says Caesar punishes wickedness and vice and certainly he rewards virtue in some manners, but Paul never had the thought of a Christian ruler who would keep the Church. He would restrain evil, yes. And yes, he would order his realm so that peace and tranquility might reign. That is his or her responsibility and it very much like the responsibility that a father has toward his family and for that reason rulers throughout history have been affectionately referred to as a mother or father of his people. And would bring us back to Adam and to his duty to rule over creation as God’s viceroy.
I want to say more about being God’s viceroy, but first please recall the Colossus of Nero, that great looming bronze statue that was fashioned as part of Nero’s urban renewal project after the great fire. Imagine yourself upon a hill looking down at Rome when the colossus was moved from its original setting to the Colosseum, scores of great elephants slowly pulling it along. It seems to be almost lumbering through the narrow streets of Rome, dumb and brutish, gawking without the slightest insight as Ignatius, Justin, and hundreds of unknown Christian happily went to die for their King in the Colosseum. And recall how one Caesar after another, Constantine included, attempted to reinterpret and rename the colossus to suite their own ends. But this is what I want you to remember: that for 342 years the Colossus of Nero loomed over the city of Rome until it was torn down by the Visigoths in August of 410.
And then there was the grand golden image of Nebuchadnezzar — an image that declares Nebuchadnezzar’s wealth, power, and domination. Recall that in order to make sure that everyone close to him got the message, Nebuchadnezzar decreed a liturgical celebration of the image that included the principle government officials of his kingdom, police officials, governors, the secretary of treasury, the attorney general and other legal counsel, and of course the military. As I said last week, Nebuchadnezzar meant this to be a national religious event to demonstrate the good citizenship of Babylon’s ruling class, a sort of old fashioned team building exercise displaying political solidarity and loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar. At the blast of the trumpets the other instruments would join in a sort of fanfare and that was the liturgical signal that everyone was to bow and venerate the image and anyone who did not do so would suffer the consequences. Of course no one thought that the image would come to life and take vengeance upon any unpatriotic and sacrilegious Babylonians. Everyone understood that veneration made to the image passed from the image to the prototype; reverence paid to the image was not reverence to a statue, even a statue of gold, not even a golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar. Reverence paid to the golden statue was reverence paid to Nebuchadnezzar himself. Of course you know what happened, the three young Jewish men refused to bow down before the image not because the image was nothing, but in fact because the image was something and paying reverence to the image was in fact not paying reverence to the image, but rather it was paying reverence to the prototype, the veneration passed on from the image to the person or the power or the principality portrayed in the image. And again, as I said last week, this principle was the chief reasons for the Seventh Ecumenical Council which declared, in light of the incarnation, the great value of holy images, such as images of the Cross and images of our Lord Jesus Christ as well as images of the holy Apostles and holy Women and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and furthermore the council declared that those images should be set forth in the churches of Christ because they benefit Christians and they bring honor that which is set forth in the image.
Images are not trifles. It was the practice of the King to plant his flag by planting his image to mark his rule and domain. This is the way of all Kings. Where the King erected his statue, there he ruled. His image declared that this piece of real estate belonged to him and the inhabitants are subjects and subjects are meant to obey the King and the King is meant to protect his subjects. And this brings us to the last point I want to make and it takes us back to Genesis:
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
What I want to suggest to you is that there are deep and old mysteries involved with God making us his image. I want to suggest to you that we are the image of the true King of the universe and we are meant to declare by our very being that this piece of real estate on which we stand and everything in it, the fish of the sea, every creeping thing that creeps, and every living thing that moves on the earth belong to the King. Furthermore we are an outward and visible sign of grace to the whole wide world. In the incarnation God became the image of man and he united our nature to the divine nature so that we are now the visible image of God who is God who has become a man. So now quite literally we are outward and inwardly, visible signs that signify an inward grace. We are the image of God, inwardly, our interior life of conscious intentionality enables us to understand and to act responsibly and outwardly we are the image of God incarnate, the Messiah, the King of Kings, in our bodies. God has equipped us to act as his viceroy, to love and foster his creation to its full potential and thus to achieve our full potential as we act on our image. And remember that reverence paid to the image passes on to the Prototype and so any reverence paid to us is meant to pass on to God himself. In fact we act this out liturgically every Sunday when the thurifer censes the faithful. We venerate one another bowing slightly and we are censed with frankincense, the odor of holiness most closely associated with God’s presence through out the Bible; and do not forget that our veneration of the image passes on to the King himself who live in us. Except that we are not dumb images, we are not images of stone gawking unintelligently without insight, but we are images of flesh, living images, who are self-aware, who know that we are images indwelt by the One we show forth. As light is hidden in a prism, so God hides himself in his creature man; as the sun is concealed in a rainbow, so God is concealed in the humanity of his only Son, Jesus Christ and in baptism Jesus has taken up his abode in our bodies. In our bodies and in our souls we have become a means of grace, making God’s saving Presence known to the world.