The media are filled with stories about government incompetence, not to say indifference, in addressing the needs of the people. Commentators have jumped on the recent release of the death count from the September 2017 Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, one Washington Post op-ed censuring the “local and federal” response to that tragedy. Other observers have bemoaned government attempts to curtail access to health care or end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Such stories, regardless of your political affiliation, remind you that governments – with their often “one size fits all” approach to problems – inevitably offer citizens sub-optimal services.
Not so, thank God, is this the case for the kingdom of Jesus Christ and those under its care.
The New Testament offers numerous examples of government officials displaying gross indifference to the welfare of those under their authority. Most infamously, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, who, when offered responsibility for determining the fate of the obviously innocent Jesus of Nazareth, is all too eager to “wash his hands” of the whole affair.
This irresponsibility is all the more damning given that his wife had told him to avoid implicating himself in any harm done to Jesus, whom she calls “that righteous man.” (Matthew 27:19) As with so many officials of the state, Pilate hopes his inaction will make Jesus someone else’s problem, declaring to the Jewish crowd: “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” (Matthew 27:24)
Civil detachment is also in view during the missionary travels of St. Paul. When Paul was evangelizing ing in Corinth, Jewish leaders sought to impugn him before Gallio, proconsul of Achaia. Rather than defending Paul, who was obviously being persecuted, Gallio instead seeks to extricate himself, asserting “since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves; I refuse to be a judge of these things.” He then drove them all from the tribunal, and in the tumult the ruler of the synagogue, Sosthenes, was seized and beaten. And yet, “Gallio paid no attention to this.” (Acts 18:12-17)
British historian Mary Beard suggests in her bestseller SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome that the acts of Pilate and Gallio were probably typical behavior across the empire: “so far as we can tell, even under the rule of the emperors there was hardly any such thing as a general policy for running the empire.”
Governors were expected to collect taxes from the locals and otherwise leave local cultural and political institutions alone. Amazingly, at any one time there, were probably fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators, plus maybe a few thousand slaves of the emperor, governing an empire of 50 million people. With such a disinterested imperial policy, it is unsurprising that Pilate, Gallio, and the like would exhibit only as much interest in the affairs of their subjects as was necessary to collect taxes and preserve the peace.
Contrast Roman rule with the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. He tells his disciples that heaven rejoices at the repentance of a single sinner. (Luke 15:7) Subjects of his kingdom are to be concerned with the most marginalized, honored even for giving them a “cup of cold water.” (Matthew 10:42) Jesus elsewhere declares “the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16) Indeed, the members of this kingdom are exhorted to invite to their feasts “the maimed, the lame, the blind.” It’s hard to imagine any Roman official doing the same.
Such concern for all members of the kingdom of God stems from the divine king’s own love for his people. Psalm 41 reads: “Blessed is he who considers the poor! The LORD delivers him in the day of trouble; the LORD protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land.”
The psalmist elsewhere asks: “Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.” (Psalm 113:5-8) Moreover, the king of heaven and earth care enough to know the deepest intimacies of the lives of us all, our going out and going in, having formed our inward parts, knitted together in our mothers’ wombs. (Psalm 139)
This isn’t to say that Rome wasn’t interested in projecting an image of divine benevolence onto its emperors. Octavian, the adopted son of the supposedly divine Caesar, has himself pronounced “son of a god.” He also, so Roman biographers alleged, ascended to heaven. Ancient sources tell us that Vespasian, who reigned about one generation after Christ, supposedly restored sight to a blind man by spitting in his eyes, and cured another man’s withered hand by standing on it.
Yet despite these fictional heroics and miracles, the vast majority of the citizens of the Roman empire lived in poverty, their identities and needs far removed from the knowledge or interests of their rulers. No wonder so many eagerly converted to the Christian faith, which promised an emperor who truly loved his subjects.
In the modern age, of course, we don’t have it nearly as bad as those first-century Romans. Even citizens of some of the most dictatorial governments in this world enjoy state benefits that an ancient Roman could only dream of.
Yet all the same, political structures will always, at one time or another, let us down. The inherent impersonality of governance is a permanent obstacle to realizing the help we need to live happy, fulfilled lives.
Thank heavens, as Holy Scripture shows, members of God’s kingdom will never be left behind. As Jesus taught, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” (Luke 6:20).
*Image: The Sermon of St. John the Baptist by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1525 [Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest]