In the paper the other day someone wrote about the current economic crash as a 'crisis of faith': we had believed in the money markets as our religion.
We just thought that money would make money and money would buy happiness, not realising that, sooner or later, the credit would crunch, and the holes in risky, fast-buck investments would be exposed. So now we've lost that faith, people fear to spend, and the banks fear to lend.
It would be very easy for Christians to say, 'See, we told you so. You worshipped money, not God, and this is where it's got you.' But that's not much help to the people who are hit hardest, such as families on small incomes. Yet, as the 'religion' of the market has failed, do we have a different vision of money and the economy to offer? Or is Christianity not concerned with such things?
It rather seems from what Jesus says that it's not. 'Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar -- and to God what belongs to God.' This has often been cited by Christians who want church and politics to stay apart, and with some good reason. After all, we've seen plenty of totalitarian governments that had a Christian veneer, and even in democratic politics, if a Christian party acts corruptly just once, it wrecks ruins the reputation not just of the party, but of the Christian faith. But is this what Jesus is getting at?
The Pharisees are trying desperately to get rid of Him. If He says you can pay taxes to Caesar, then He's on the side of the hated Romans, whom they hoped the longed-for Messiah would free them from, so they can stir up the people against Him. But if He says not to pay Caesar, then He's guilty of treason and they can hand him straight over to the Romans.
Jesus saw straight through this. And His answer was not just clever: it had a very basic message that we often forget: God is in control, not human beings. We don't need to try to manipulate God or others. If we are faithful to God, and work within our situation, He will do the rest.
So just grin and bear it, then? But if our situation is bad, if people around us are living with injustice and oppression, shouldn't we do something about it?
Let's look at what happened to the exiled people of Israel under Cyrus. This man, whom Isaiah calls God's anointed -- yes, Messiah! -- was a Persian ruler who had conquered the Babylonians, the people who had taken the Israelites into captivity. Wanting to be seen as tolerant and benign, he allows the Jewish people to return home.
And even though Cyrus does not know the God of Israel, God has called him by his name. Our God is a God of surprises. Just as the people and things we expect to help may disappoint, sometimes God acts through the most unlikely channels. 'People unknown to me served me' (Psalm 17.43). That is because He is 'the Lord, unrivalled'.
So by all means let's ask God for what we want. But let's be open to His way, His initiative -- which may well be a prompt to action: St. Paul was an amazingly active and energetic apostle, yet always in response to the guidance he received in prayer. A world away from seizing illusory happiness from a fast car, dream holiday (and pay nothing till Christmas).
In these tougher times, we need to rely on God's providence. This is not a grim fact -- though the bursting of a bubble is never pleasant -- rather, it's an opportunity. If we put our trust in God, and listen to His voice, we can persevere in real hope, working especially to love our neighbour in need, knowing that what we do is faith in action.
This is our opportunity to let go of the money religion, so that money becomes what it should be: a useful tool, not our master.