We are getting settled back home after an incredible trip first to Spain to share with believers there, and then to Rome where we took a walk back through time to the beginning stages of western civilization. We started our trip there among the ruins of ancient Rome—the Colosseum, Palatine Hill where the rulers built their palaces, and the Roman Forum where they ruled. Later in the trip we visited the Vatican and St. Peters, a underground excavation of a 4th century basilica for early believers, and St. John’s Cathedral that was near our hotel and was the first seat of the papal authority for the Catholic Church, and it continues to be so even though St. Peter’s Basilica is nearer the Vatican.
As someone fascinated by human history experiencing these sights firsthand was amazing on a number of levels, many of which were conflicting. I could admire what mankind was able to create in ancient times, but that would be consumed by the fact that they could only do so by conquering people in far-off lands, stealing their treasures for themselves, and bringing them back as slaves to do their work. At home they created a society that sustain an elite class of the privileged at the cost of keeping everyone else impoverished. As long as they pacified 99% of the population with food and entertainment, the 1% could continue their privileged lives with little consequence.
To help me make sense of these things I saw there I also took two books along to read: Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Simon Baker and History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present by John O’Malley. I am still reading those now and am finding them fascinating, in both the achievements and atrocities of mankind and how in most cases how those two are directly linked.
What amazed me was seeing the juxtaposition of the pinnacle of pagan culture (Rome) and what is supposed to be the crowing glory of Christendom (the Vatican). But they are exactly identical in what they loved and treasured and in what they were willing to do to establish their authority and to manipulate the common man. In fact one could say that the priorities of the Roman Empire didn’t vanish with the fall of the culture, they simply rolled over into the defining realities of the hierarchical structures and facilities of the “church” in that day. Whether it was a small group of Romans wanting to conquer the known world to satiate their desire for power and extravagance, or a small group of religious leaders wanting to do the same thing. Moving from the Roman Forum to the Vatican it was obvious that both cultures were created and sustained by the same preoccupations with:
And through it all one phrase kept coming to mind: “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke16:15) That’s what Jesus said to the Pharisees about their attempts to serve both God and mammon, and he gave them a firm warning that mammon would always win that contest. And so it has, even down to the present day.
As a culture we are still impressed with magnificent-if-gaudy buildings or fascinated with celebrity. It’s the same worldly vices reborn in our generation. So many seek to find significance through fame or finances even if they have to trample on others to gain their illusion of success. It all begins with the simple deception that God’s gifts make me better than, more deserving than, more right than the people who live around me. It takes that delusion to treat people the way you have to treat them to be at home in the upper reaches of society. And even those that don’t have that kind of “success” either spend their life striving to find it, or live frustrated with God that he didn’t make them as successful or as well-known as they think they should be.
What saddens me most here are those who expound the message of grace but don’t know how to live in it for others. They take advantage for themselves, but don’t know how to extend it to the closest people to them. Jesus reminded his first disciples not to exalt any person above others, and certainly not to place themselves there. “You have one Father and you are all brothers,” he reminded them. And, “The greatest among you is the servant of all.” Once our sense of success is based in the world’s priorities of wealth, visibility, and success we have already traded Jesus’ kingdom for another, no matter how much lip service we pay to his. God’s gifts are not for personal privilege but for serving others.
After seeing the vanity and emptiness of so much opulence and false notions of power and influence, I came away even more committed to the wonderful simplicity of relationships with others as brothers and sisters, in the simple wonder of God’s gifts and graces imparted as freely to others as he has done so for me.
“What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”