19 October 2014
Readings 1 Thess 1:1-10, Matt 22:15-22
Heavenly Father, as we gather together today to share your word and your sacrament, we ask that you dwell richly within us and transform our hears and minds to become more fully the people and the church that you made us to be. Amen.
I am not a football fan, and I have never pretended to be, but I have noticed an interesting thing about football supporters – it does not matter how bitter the rivalry between two clubs they will always put aside their differences when faced with a bigger rival from outside. Chelsea and Tottenham supporters may hate each other generally but when those teams become part of an England team playing against another country, particularly Germany, then the differences get buried, even if only for a short time.
And if that is true in football then it is also true in politics – for the last four years we have had a slightly odd coalition and who can tell which unlikely bedfellows may make up the next government?
A common enemy, or perhaps a common desire for power, can create some unlikely alliances amongst those who are normally mortal foes. And although it may not be immediately obvious that is exactly what is going on in today’s gospel reading.
If we had not had the harvest readings last week we would have heard Jesus speaking about the nature of the kingdom of heaven and using the parable of a royal wedding banquet. Those who had been invited originally had treated their invitations with contempt and God’s response was to destroy the original invitees and to extend the invitation to everyone, the good and the bad. The Pharisees knew that Jesus was preaching against them and so they were looking for a way to have him arrested – and we are of course familiar with Jesus disputing with the Pharisees about questions of the Jewish law.
But today’s Gospel reading brings an interesting new third party to the mix. We see at the start of the reading that the Pharisees were plotting to entrap Jesus so their sent their disciples to question him but, and here is the remarkable part, they went along with the Herodians.
This partnership here between the Pharisees and the Herodians is remarkable because these two groups of people would have hated each other with a vengeance. The Pharisees, for all the bad press that they get in the bible, were proud of their faith and their culture as the true inhabitants of the land of Israel. In many ways they were probably quite similar to the current Israelis, many of whom wear their faith and their patriotism with equal fervour. The Pharisees would have hated the occupation of their land by the Romans and they would have equally despised the puppet monarchy installed by the Romans in place of a proper Jewish king. And who was the puppet monarchy installed and supported by the Romans? Of course it was the dynasty of Herod. There are actually two Herods who feature in the life of Christ – Herod the Great who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth and who ordered the slaughter of the innocents and his son, Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded and who played his part in the execution of Jesus, along with Pilate. So the party of the Herodians were those who supported this rather dysfunctional monarchy and the Pharisees were proud Israelites who hated the occupation.
It would have taken a pretty big enemy to unite these two factions together in common cause, which says something about how big a threat to the status quo Jesus was seen to be. The Pharisees were afraid of Jesus’ attack on the religious establishment and the Herodians of any threat to the political balance of power.
And how do politicians have the means to wield power? Of course it is through the collection of taxes and it is for that reason why tax collectors are singled out time and again in the gospels as being amongst the greatest sinners, and we spoke about that when we looked at the calling of Matthew a few weeks ago. However then, as now, it was highly illegal to refuse to pay one’s taxes and it was also illegal to encourage others to refuse to pay tax as this was seen as a direct attack on the legitimacy of the ruling class.
And so, in the exchange that follows, the Herodians are trying to trick Jesus into saying that one should not support the occupation by paying tax to the emperor. If Jesus had said that it would have been a short cut to an arrest for insurrection and this troublesome preacher would have been out of the way.
But, like the clever interrogators that they are, the Herodians do not go straight in for the killer question – rather they try and butter Jesus up first with flattery:
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth…and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality..”
And only then do they move in for the kill:
“Tell us, then, what do you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
But, of course, Jesus was not to be caught out quite so easily and his response was not in the least meek and mild:
“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”
And like all coins since the invention of money, including the coins in your own pockets, this coin bore the likeness and inscription of the monarch – although not the local ruler Herod but probably of the current Roman Emperor, who was the Caesar Tiberius, and Jesus gives the unarguable answer to their question:
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
And the unholy alliance of Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at his answer and went away, doubtless to resume their usual enmity to one another.
So Jesus gave a clever answer which dumbfounded his interrogators but what might it mean for us, as followers of Jesus in the 21st century, to give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to give to God what is God’s?
For me, at least, the first part of the answer – give to the emperor what is the emperor’s – means that Christians, on the whole, are not called to withdraw entirely from playing a role in society. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been plenty of individuals or groups who have withdrawn from contact with non-Christians – some monastic orders have been completely enclosed and some groups of Christians such as the Amish or some Brethren have sought to be as separate as possible from the outside world – the world of earthly monarchs or emperors. Doubtless that is a particular call on their lives and I believe that their presence is a special witness to the wider world but I believe that most Christians, most of the time, are called to be salt and light to the world by living in the world – and, unfortunately that sometimes means paying our taxes and giving to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs what belongs to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Which reminds me, I have some self-assesment forms to fill in. I tell you, rarely has so much paperwork been required for such little numbers.
But there is a second part of the equation – what does it mean for us to give to God the things that are God’s?
Well, the coin in the story bore the image and likeness of the emperor and so it belonged to the emperor. But, as Christians, we believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God – in other words our souls, the ground of our very deepest being if you will, bears the imprint of God, our king and emperor. So, what belongs to God? We belong to God. So what do we have to give to God? We have only one thing to give to God and that is ourselves; our entire self, to be remade and reformed to be perfect in the love of our Father. Can we give ourselves, all that is ours without holding back anything? No, not without the grace of God, but then, we could never do anything without him, could we?
And what might we look like as a people if we truly gave to God that which is God’s? In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians we are granted a glimpse into a community that seems to have been transformed by faith:
“We continually remember before God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The faith of that community seems directly linked to their work – there is no artificial divide here between things of the spirit and things of the world. On the contrary these people’s faith and love have inspired their work and their labour. And the reason these people allowed their faith to transform their actions? Paul sets it out nicely for us:
“…because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”
If our faith consists only of words – either words on a page or words on our lips then it is unlikely to get very deep and it is unlikely we shall ever be able to truly give to God that which is God’s.
And so, yes, we should continue to play our part in the world, to give to the world that which is the world’s within whatever calling God has given us and we should resist the siren call to either fully conform to the ways of the world or to withdraw entirely into a holy huddle. But, as a baptised people we also need to give to God that which is God’s and that, brothers and sisters in Christ, we can only do if we allow our faith to stop being mere words and for us to encounter the power of God, to be deeply convicted of the love of God by the Holy Spirit so that we may work, labour and endure because of our faith, love and hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.