Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7)
The boy reflected for just a second and said: “I have learned that the walls of inkpots make ink useful”. [The Master responded:] “You have said well, Li-Ch’ung. Virtue is useful to the soul of man in just the same way. Forget the limits of virtue and your soul will dilute in the immensity of the world. Respect the limits imposed on you by the world and you shall become a man complete and the world shall belong to you”. (On the Paradoxical Nature of Limits)
“What then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world while forfeiting his soul?” (Our Lord Jesus in Matthew 16:26)
The apostolic counsel wisely advise us to live in peace with the authorities that God allows to rule over men. Such authorities are servants of God. The conduct of even the most wicked among them will eventually serve God’s purpose in some way: “The Lord hath made all things for Himself: the wicked also for the evil day.” (Proverbs 16:4, DOUAY-RHEIMS)
History is replete with examples of wicked, mediocre, even foolish and stupid rulers. Certainly the roster of the benevolent, wise, and prudent world rulers is much shorter than the long list of their foolish colleagues. The mind of those who do not know God is filled with thoughts of discontent and rebellion against those governing them but the gospel ask us to be submissive and quiet. As long as authorities do not ask us to disobey God’s Law we must do our utmost to preserve law and order by being an example of obedience.
In general, rulers are quite happy to let decent men and women live in peace, knowing as they do that they have their hands full trying to keep those who are not decent under control. In a world that is spiritually under the influence of the forces of darkness, the fear of law enforcement keep a good number of citizens from committing evil acts. In that sense, the imperfect members of the police and other forces contribute greatly to keep society from careening out of control. Sin is controlled by fear of the state’s monopoly on violence.
That is the paradoxical nature of how we humans organize civil societies. The message is clear: “Be civil and good unto others or someone is going to be uncivil and bad unto you!”
Most people understand that order is better than chaos, that violence has to submit to reason and not the other way around. Saint Paul exhorts all Christians to pray for kings, governors, and rulers in general: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4) Paul makes it clear that societal peace and order are the ideal ground to grow in the Gospel and preach it. Our Lord Himself was born and lived in the midst of the Pax Romana, a long period of relative peace that followed the ascension of Caesar Augustus to the imperial throne. It was during that period that the Roman roads, military garrisons, and administrative structure were imposed over most of Europe, North Africa, and the Near and Middle East. I see the hand of God in that particular period of history. In spite of the many persecutions and oppression, the very orderly nature of the Roman State was unwittingly conducive to the growth of the Christian Church. Frequently, Christians were praised as exemplary citizens and often the various pagan rulers trusted Christians with administering important things, knowing very well about their moral rectitude.
Only a few hundred years after the Crucifixion, the Roman Empire was completely Christian. Pagan Rome fell like a dried up husk and that new flower, Christendom bloomed in spite of having had a ruthless Empire aligned against her.
True Christians should therefore behave as if they were before God’s presence even when falsely accused of the most heinous crimes. To do otherwise would be rebellion against the just order of God in this moment of history. We have been called to be “the salt of the world” (Matthew 5:13) a powerful preservative that keeps good foods from rotting. We are placed in the midst of the world to increase order in the system even when we know well that the system is condemned to futility. (Romans 8:20) Why? Because God — through us– is presenting the spectacle of the Cross to the world. The world is going down to nothing and we are going up to the Kingdom of the Heavens. The world shall perish in darkness while those trusting in Jesus’ promises are growing in faith leading to everlasting glory. Thus the path to death contrasts with the path to life. (Matthew 7:13-14 )
The parable will not last forever. One day it will come to an end when God has enough of the wayward ways of mankind. A sudden dramatic end will come to the “sons of disobedience” — there are plenty of allegories and representations of that event in all the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps one of the most clear is this:
“Son of man, if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its people and their animals, even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord. (Ezequiel 14:13-14)
We are called to be Noah, Daniel, and Job in these last days of a godless world. Noah worked and persevered; Daniel diligently searched for God’s wisdom; and Job had extraordinary patience anchored in a rock-solid faith. Mountains may collapse and the sea may rage and burst its bounds but to those who are like Noah, Daniel, and Job nothing awful will happen. They will be saved by being righteous before God.
The salutary fear of God’s ire and the violent end of this world should serve us to stay obedient to God’s law. The world has armies and policemen to keep their flock in check. God considers that fear of punishment an inferior or imperfect way to obedience: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) But the aim of wisdom is love, the purest motivation to walk with God and preserve one’s soul.
Day after day in this year of Our Lord of 2021, we contemplate the sad spectacle of decrepit men, morally rotten by their riches, working hard to conquer and control the world. My bet is that they will not succeed. The very fact that they even think of conquering the world tells me that they are just another crop of loony-toons about to find the real meaning of Matthew 16:26 — it is impossible to own the world if it takes the condemnation of one’s soul to even attempt it.
The world was already conquered that first Good Friday on Mount Calvary. Who can possibly snatch it from His pierced hands?