Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The initial smugness of the Pharisees in our gospel reading reminded me of a story about a church in Texas. I’ll tell it to you:
In a small Texas town, Drummond's bar began construction on a new building to increase their business. The local Baptist church started a campaign to block the bar from opening with petitions and prayers. Work progressed right up till the week before opening when lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.
The church folk were rather smug in their outlook after that - until the bar owner sued the church on the grounds that the church was ultimately responsible for the demise of his building, either through direct or indirect actions or means. The church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection to the building's demise in its reply to the court.
As the case made its way into court, the judge looked over the paperwork. At the hearing he commented, 'I don't know how I'm going to decide this, but as it appears from the paperwork, we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that does not.'
That Texas Church community did rather get caught out. They had a particular view of morality but then weren’t prepared to pay the price. Perhaps they had got too hung up on the wrong issues. Which takes us back to the Pharisees...
Our gospel reading can be better appreciated in context: Jesus is in the temple. First of all the chief priests and elders question Jesus’ authority but Jesus doesn’t play ball with them. Then Jesus tells 3 parables that we have had over the last couple of weeks: the parable of the two sons whose Father asked them to go and work in the vineyard; the parable of the wicked tenant farmers, who wound up killing the Landowner’s son and the parable of the wedding feast. We know that the Pharisees are pretty hacked off because we are told “they realised that Jesus was speaking about them.” It is with this pretext that they set out to trap Jesus.
The Pharisees roped the Herodians into their scheme. Normally, these two groups were bitter enemies, but they were united against Jesus. The Pharisees opposed the Roman occupation of Palestine. On the other hand, the Herodians, a political party, supported Herod Antipas and the policies instituted by Rome.
The question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” is a soul searching one despite the Pharisees impure motives on this occasion. [There was a long historical background to the question. The Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century B.C., against the Greek tyrannical rule, had been in part a tax revolt. The question was: was Jesus’ movement to be like that too?] In the first century, the Jews were required to pay taxes to support the Roman government. They hated this taxation because the money went directly into Caesar’s treasury; some of it went to support the pagan temples and decadent life-style of the Roman aristocracy. Caesar’s image on the coins was a constant reminder of Israel’s suppression by Rome. According to Tom Wright: “Roman coins added theological insult to political injury: they bore a human image, offensive in itself, doubly so when the inscription declared him to be the son of a god.” So, we end up with a clash between Caesar and the true God.
Jesus was in a no win situation. If he answered “yes” that it was right to pay taxes to Ceasar, the Pharisees would say that he was opposed to God, the only King they recognized. Much of the crowd would be disillusioned with Jesus. Even handling the coinage with Caesar’s image on it was offensive to some. If Jesus answered “no”, that the taxes should not be paid, the Herodians would accuse him of treason. However, the Pharisees were not motivated by love for God’s laws, and the Herodians were not motivated by love for Roman justice. Jesus exposed their evil motives and they were out manoeuvred.
We can take Jesus’ response on different levels:
On one level, asking for a coin, having his opponents tell him whose image is on it and declaring “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”, is cleverly evasive. Jesus does not answer the query directly, but throws the issue back on the audience, who have to decide for themselves where to draw the line between the emperor’s sphere of authority and God’s.
On a straightforward level, Jesus reply is often interpreted to show that we have dual citizenship. Our citizenship of the state requires that we pay money for the services and benefits we receive. Our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven requires that we pledge to God our primary obedience and commitment. However, it does not completely solve the question about Church and state, all the issues about obligations to the government.
The passage does not make God and Caesar to be equals. Caesar’s absolute claims are as nothing before the all-embracing claim of the one true God. On another level, the coin bears Caesar’s image and belongs to Caesar but humans, on the other hand, bear the image of God. Humans may subscribe to the tiresome taxation, but they do not belong to the emperor; they belong to God. Humans bear God’s image, and wherever they live and operate – whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm, they belong to God. Our primary loyalty does not switch when we move out of church and into the voting booth. Jesus, himself the divine Image, was on his way to symbolize and embody, as only the unique Son could, the God whose face is revealed at last, not in financial demands but in self giving love.
What is our response to the sovereignty of God? We are called to respond in the way we orientate our lives. In terms of money, we can consider our finances, on a personal, national and global level.
Sadly society has not learned the lessons of the financial crisis and rectified, at grass roots, the injustices of our economic system. As Brexit looms, can we establish a fairer monetary system, promoting co-operation rather than competition, placing value on social justice? There is current disappointment with Sainsburys for its determination to forgo the established Fairtrade certification and go its own way on fair trade without the external standards and regulations. Can we make our voice heard on this and such other issues?
On the more micro level of our own finances, what does it mean to give to God what belongs to God? Committing our lives to God will have implications for our finances. Apart from more general ethical considerations about how we spend and invest our money, there is the question of what portion do we assign directly to God’s work. The Old Testament tithe entailed a tenth of someone’s wealth. On that basis the Church of England guide for giving is 5% of net income to the church and 5% to other causes. At the end of the day, it is for us to work out with God what is appropriate for our circumstances.
May we be orientated towards God and his kingdom purposes in all areas of life, however significant or small. There is no great sacred and secular divide. The whole universe is God’s domain. God grant us the resolve that we need. Amen.
Rev Lisa Cornwell