The City of Man and the City of God

Third Sunday of the Year. Jon 3:1-5, 10; Ps 25:4-9; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mk 1:14-20

Today's first reading is the story of Jonah's mission to Nineveh, how Jonah preaches the message that the great city of Nineveh will shortly be destroyed. The second reading offers a similar kind of warning: the world in its present form or ‘outward appearance’ is passing away, and time is ‘running out’. In fact, the Greek phrase translated here as ‘time running out’ also means ‘time growing short’ or being ‘folded in’, like the sail of a ship approaching her final destination. Even as the form of present things is passing away, however, Jesus' words in today's Gospel bring hope: the seed of a new world is being sown, the coming Kingdom of God. So, he says, “Repent,” that is, turn away from sin, “and believe in the gospel.”

So two worlds or kingdoms are represented in today's readings. There is the world in its present form, which is passing away like the city of Nineveh, and there is the beginning of a new world, the Kingdom of God, which will appear in its glory when time finally runs out. In the meantime, however, there is this interim period, a period of dusk or twilight, in which both worlds temporarily co-exist. St Augustine described these worlds as two cities, the City of Man and the City of God, present throughout the whole of human history and prefigured in the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis. And human beings, also throughout the whole of history, have been offered a choice about which city to belong to, the City of Man or the City of God. Now this difference of allegiance is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Those who adhere to the City of God by becoming Christians take their full part as citizens in their own countries and do not usually live apart. Nevertheless, Christians have a different attitude towards the world than that of those who place their hope in the City of Man. As St Paul remarks in today's Second Reading, those buying should act as if they do not own anything, and those using the world should act as if not using it fully; in other words, we should treat the things of this world with a certain lightness of touch, as temporary means to assist us in gaining salvation and not the goals of our search for lasting happiness. The early Christian writer Diognetes expressed this same attitude at the height of the Roman Empire. He writes that the Christians, “submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country. Like other people, they marry and beget children, though they do not expose [kill] their infants. Any Christian is free to share his neighbor's table, but never his marriage bed. Though destiny has placed them here in the flesh, they do not live after the flesh; their days are passed on the earth, though their citizenship is above in the heavens.”

Now from a long term perspective, it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to belong to the City of Man rather than the City of God. Nevertheless, although the various forms of the City of Man rise and fall relatively quickly, at any one moment in history, the City of Man often appears rather strong. The German language has a special word for this worldly strength, ‘weltenkraft’ or worldpower, and the City of Man often radiates worldpower, glamour and permanence. The Roman Empire seemed eternal until it crumbled in the fifth century; many Communist states looked strong and permanent until 1989, when they suddenly melted away; the glamorous financial empires of Wall Street seemed to be confident and secure until late last year, when many of them vanished overnight. It is important to remember such events as a warning not to place too much trust in the City of Man. But besides its apparent strength, the City of Man often bribes the dark side of fallen human nature, a darkness manifested by the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust. Those who surrender to these vices rather than to the love of God will feel fairly comfortable in the City of Man, at least for a time; indeed, they will even rise up and attack those who choose the City of God, just as Cain killed his brother Abel.

How, then, can we apply these lessons to our own lives? Well by coming to Church, we are all expressing some allegiance to the City of God. Many Christians, however, still live with divided hearts, adding some practices of the City of God to lives that are still shaped, to some degree, by the City of Man. As a result many Christians are less effective and fruitful in this world than they should be. The step which most Christians find difficult is to surrender everything to God, as revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This surrender may or may not involve a physical abandonment of our possessions, as the apostles did in today's Gospel by abandoning their fishing nets and following Christ. But this surrender does involve putting God first, whatever our walk of life, to devoting significant time to daily prayer and the sacraments, to following our God-given vocation and seeing the passing things of this world from the perspective of our true home, which is in heaven. May God help us to abandon ourselves fully to his love.

 Father Andrew Pinsent, Saint Ambrose Church, Saint Louis, 25th January 2009

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