The 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 58:7-10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 112:4-9
Second Reading: 1st Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 2:1-5
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 5:13-16
The blending of religion and politics is a sticky business, and America is no stranger to their entanglement. Despite being a country that preaches the separation of church and state, the imagery of religion is a perennial component of our political landscape.
Four months after assuring a group of Protestant clergy in Houston that his Catholicism would never cross that impregnable church-state divide, President-elect John F. Kennedy invoked the 1630 sermon of John Winthrop where the Puritan minister spoke of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a city upon a hill.” That obvious reference to the sermon of Jesus in this weekend’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew has set the tone for American political activity at home and abroad for almost four hundred years.
Known as “American exceptionalism,” this vision of the United States as the embodiment of that “shining city on a hill” has been invoked by such disparate politicians as Ted Cruz and Barack Obama, and was the cornerstone of the political vision of Ronald Regan. Yet, America has not cornered the market on exceptionalism – the Australian Labor Party has used the slogan “the light on the hill” since the late 1940s.
Whether America or Australia or some other nation or none at all is the winner in the “exceptionalism” debate is of no ultimate consequence. No political entity can lay claim to that which Jesus referenced in His sermon. When Jesus told Pontius Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world, He meant it. Any “city on a hill” would be inhabited by those who are His disciples, and it is only in that context that the phrase has any real meaning.
St. Augustine clearly saw this reality and distinction and spoke of it eloquently in his defense of the Catholic Church against Her Roman detractors. The City of God was his response to the pagan view that the Roman Empire fell because of the weakness of the Christians who had recently put their hands on the levers of power. The book describes two cities – the City of God and the City of Man – and posits that only one will survive into eternity. Spoiler alert: it won’t be the City of Man.
All empires – from the Roman to the British to the American – have their day in the sun, but only the eternal City of God is “exceptional” and can truly be that “city set on a mountain” standing for all time. Our job as disciples of Jesus is never to embody a jingoistic approach to the City of Man to the diminishment of our patriotism to the City of God.
We are called to be good citizens of our nation, as are all people in all nations, but as disciples of Christ, we are called first and foremost to be good citizens of the City of God. Only by dedicating ourselves to following the Leader of the City of God can we bring any light to the City of Man.