Before God created the world, the entire universe was filled with a holy presence. God took a deep breath to draw back and made room for the world. From that first breath, darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light,” light was created; the light was poured into vessels and God sent those vessels to the world. If they had each arrived whole, the world would have been perfect. But the holy light was too powerful to be contained, and the vessels split open sending sparks flying everywhere. Some of God’s holy light became trapped inside the shards of the vessels. And so, it is our job as human beings to release and gather the sparks. When enough sparks have been gathered, tikkun olam (repairing the world) will be complete.
This is a story told by a famous and wise 16th Century Rabbi; this is the same century that started the Protestant Reformation. Rabbi Isaac Luria lived between 1534 and 1572; Rabbi Luria was also known as The Ari, which means “The Lion.” He was a mystic who lived in Safed, which was in the Galilee region of Palestine. His teachings are referred to as the Lurianic Kabbalah.
Another Rabbi, who lived 16 centuries before and who we as followers also believe is the Messiah, embodied this light and the healing of the world. Jesus embodied God’s love, justice, hope and wholeness. Jesus’ ministry was to gather the sparks that existed in those who’d been pushed to the margins—the broken-hearted, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the dis-eased—to affirm the light that was in them and to be an agent of healing and wholeness. Jesus’ ministry was to gather the sparks of light to show that light leads us all into a KinDom of God that is compassion and love. And part of that ministry of light was to challenge those who would seek to destroy the light.
With the distance of 2000 years and the reality of living in the West, we lose some of the impacts of Jesus’ parables and actions. We tend to tame them in order not to rock the boat too much. The encounter of Jesus with Pharisees in Jerusalem told by Matthew is just such a story.
This little statement that Jesus made about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s has been used cleverly by some leaders through history; it is subtle but the argument some make is this: “Jesus said that we should pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s so we should accept the government’s teachings and dictates, whatever is expected of us. And then give to God what is God’s.” This kind of interpretation of Jesus has led to the Church’s complicity through the ages in unjust ways—Residential Schools in Canada, systemic racism, power over others through authoritarian leadership, building empires around the world, loss of freedoms, oppression, running-roughshod over environmental concerns, propping up big corporations over citizens’ interest, and others. But Jesus, interpreted from the perspective of the story from Rabbi Luria, was about challenging oppression, violence, and injustice, pulling the sparks of light together in declaring God’s KinDom of light.
Jesus had many encounters with Pharisees and other party leaders of that time who wanted to trap and destroy his message of light. The Pharisees were even more powerful when Matthew wrote his gospel and that’s why so often the Pharisees are not portrayed very flatteringly in Matthew. On the surface, this story is about taxes; that tax was huge and did not benefit people in terms of social programs or infrastructure. In Jesus’ day, taxation often led to those doing the taxing getting wealthy. The question about paying taxes was a loaded question any way Jesus answered it. If Jesus said you should pay taxes, he was betraying his followers, who had no means to pay the taxes. If he said not to pay the Roman tax, then he was ripe for arrest as a revolutionary against the Romans.
Jesus recognized the dilemma: alignment with Roman taxation or rebellion against Roman occupation. So, Jesus very cleverly turned the question back on its head, answered it in another way, and said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
This story is NOT about dual loyalty to Caesar—the state—and to God. There’s more in what Jesus is not saying. The Hebrew Scriptures, most notably Psalm 24, taught that everything belonged to God. So, what Jesus said was a kind of code that the Jewish people around him would have understood, namely that Caesar and Roman might be nothing and all things belonged to God. So, in a very real way, Jesus turned the situation around and implicitly said to the Pharisees and other leaders, “You are complicit with our Roman occupiers because you have a Roman coin in your pocket. You are committing idolatry by putting Caesar’s things ahead of God’s.” To whom do we belong, Jesus, in essence, asked.
Are we part of mending the world, drawing the sparks of light together? Are we part of seeking the welfare, wholeness and healing of our neighbours? Are we about Black Lives Matter? Are we about caring for one another in this time of pandemic by keeping our distance, wearing masks and observing protocols? Are we about seeking justice and reconciliation with the 1st Nations people? Are we about changing our ways for the healing of our planet? Are we about mending the world and giving honour to God by joining others in drawing the sparks of light together in a new creation? Lots of questions arise from what seems a simple encounter between Jesus and some Pharisees.
And maybe the first step in our journey of healing is to recognize the spark of light that is in each of us. So, part of what is required in the completion of God’s creation is that we join together. We share our sparks of light with one another and in doing so, we cast more light into the world. We cast more light into the gloomier places of our societies where people live in the shadows because they’ve been pushed there. We draw more and more people into the light and become the KinDom of Light and New Creation that Jesus embodied and proclaimed.
And then, maybe Judy Chicago’s vision will come to fruition:
And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind…
…And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.