October 2007 - Volume 12, Issue 3
In the molding and making of a good life, some virtues are primary, and some are secondary. Some are structural and some are decorative.
A charming personality, for example, is a decorative virtue. It's nice to have. It makes a person pleasant to be around; but a person can lead a truly good life without it.
Loyalty, on the other hand, is a structural virtue. It is to a good life what steel girders are to a tall building. More than nice, it is absolutely indispensable. There can be no strong and enduring character without it. Not only is it essential as a personal quality, it is also the glue of our society. It is what holds our homes, our churches, our communities and our nation together. Take away loyalty and all of our most cherished social institutions would crumble into ruin. It is a primary virtue.
Our challenge, however, is not simply how to be loyal to our families, our friends and our faith. It is also what to do when two or more of our loyalties comes into conflict, one against another. We live in the kind of world where that sort of thing frequently happens. It may be a conflict of loyalties between one's religious faith and vocational responsibility.
An employee is instructed to do something that his conscience cannot approve. What should he do? Register a product and risk losing his job? His family is depending on him and his income. He could ease his conscience by telling himself that the employer is solely responsible, but would that be an act of wisdom or cowardice?
There is a gospel reading where a group of people asked Jesus, "is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not?" This question on that occasion was not asked in sincerity. It was an attempt to force Jesus into saying something that would either discredit him with the crowd or get him in trouble with the authorities.
For many a devout Jew, the question expressed a sincere and serious problem. They thought of their nation as a theocracy, ruled by God alone. For them, it was a grave matter to acknowledge, inn any way, the authority of a foreign ruler. Their question might be paraphrased: "Can a Jew conscientiously pay taxes to Rome, or should he refuse on the ground that God alone is the King of Israel?"
To pay the tax would be a violation of conscience. Not to pay the tax would be a violation of law, bringing serious consequences upon the offender and his family.
What is a person to do in a circumstance such as that? Is it all very well to say conscience should always take precedence over man-made laws. But the issue is not that easily resolved. An informed and sensitive conscience is sometimes pulled in opposite directions.
Life would be so simple if we always got to choose between that which is ideally right and that which is obviously wrong. We might not make the right choice, but at least we would know which was which. Unfortunately, life is not like that. Occasionally, we are faced with a clear-cut option between good and evil.
Then there are other times when we are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Jesus had to deal with that. He was certainly no supporter of the Roman Empire. Those who were strong dominated those who were weak. Jesus despised that. But the Roman Empire was a fact of life. It had to be dealt with one way or another.
He only had two choices to answer their question. His refusal to pay taxes would bring brutal reprisals. He certainly could not put God in second place.
Caesar was a fact of life and as long as he could do it with honor, he lived and worked within the system. But when the day came that he had to choose between God's way and the world's way, he made his choice and sealed it with his own blood.
Living in this world necessarily involves some compromise, but compromise has its limits. Each person must decide what those limits are in his or her own life.
In times of conflicting loyalties, we can keep before us the example and spirit of Christ. He was loyal to his race. He was loyal to his friends. He even had a degree of loyalty for Caesar. But his supreme loyalty belonged to God and he would not compromise that even though the price of faithfulness was death on a cross.
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