"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12
Friday, October 14, 2011
Sunday Sermon: Jesus and the Roman Coin
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
You know how you get drawn in to the anecdotes and family stories of people you spend a lot of time with? Friends, colleagues and the like? I’ve shared the same office with three colleagues for a number of years: one Methodist, one Sikh and one Muslim. I was concentrating on some marking (this in itself is unusual what with marking being akin to spiritual death and about the only thing that might cause me take the name of the Lord in vain during a school day) and I half tuned in to this little tale believing I’d missed the start:
“ …. So the boy wanted £100.00 very badly.” (Is this his nephew? I wasn’t really listening.) “He prayed for two weeks but nothing happened. Then he decided to write God a letter requesting £100.00. When the Post Office received the letter addressed simply to God, they didn’t know how to respond so decided to send it to the Prime Minister.” (Now I’m taking notice.) “Mr. Cameron was so impressed, touched, and amused that he instructed Mr. Osborne to send the boy £5.00. Mr. Cameron thought that this would appear to be a lot of money to a small boy.” (He clearly doesn’t know the children I know.) “The boy was delighted with the £5.00 and immediately sat down to write a thank you note to God that read: "Dear God, Thank you very much for sending me the money. However, I noticed that for some reason you had to send it via the Inland Revenue and, as usual, they deducted too much.”
“What? Is this a true story?” I ask my Methodist friend. (He teaches Geography – enough said.)
The others look at me as if I am mad and there is some rolling of eyes. Not for the first time I had missed – and therefore messed up - a joke.
Ah, the Inland Revenue: of course no one likes paying taxes and this theme is very relevant to today’s Gospel reading.
Take a coin out of your pocket – go on, we’ve not had the collection yet. Look at any of the coins in your pocket and you will see on one side a portrait of the Queen surrounded by an inscription. It’s the same for the coinage of any country and its Head of State. This design reflects the coinage of imperial Rome where the portrait was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviation, included the emperor’s name and his titles.
As our Gospel story begins, we find Jesus again in the Temple teaching, and the stage is set for that Gospel drama where Jesus challenges his opponents by making reference to a Roman coin and in doing so raises for his disciples down the ages the vexed question of the relationship between religion and politics - or church and state if you prefer.
In this Gospel extract, we see members of two opposing first-century religious parties teaming up in an effort to trick Jesus. On one side of this unlikely alliance were the Herodians, Jews who support the local puppet ruler and who basically kept their power by cooperating with the occupying Roman government in the hope that compromise would ensure the survival of the Jewish people under Roman rule. They advocated paying the tax as a way of appeasing their Roman overlords.
On the opposite side of the debate stood the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who rigorously held to the teachings of the law of Moses and the prophets and who believed that compromising with a political power like Rome compromised the very faith of the Jews. The Pharisees, though not advocates of violent revolution, were loyal to Judaism and its God.
The Herodians put political expedience first; the Pharisees put the Jewish faith first.
So, it must have come as a surprise to Jesus to see both Pharisees and Herodians coming to him as a group and seeking to trap him with the no-win question which began, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no one, for you do not regard the position of human beings.”
Now, you know you are in trouble when your enemies begin to flatter you, so Jesus must have been instantly on his guard. They wanted to force Jesus to side with one group or another: either with the revolutionaries working to drive out the Romans, or with the collaborators who profited from the occupation. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If he responded in favour of the Herodians, agreeing that taxes should be paid to Caesar, he would be seen by the Pharisees and many Jews as being weak on following the laws of Moses and as giving in to the oppressive government which was killing Jews. But if he sided with the Pharisees and agreed that taxes should not be paid to the Roman overlords, he could be accused of treason and he would lose the people’s respect.
Either way Jesus stood to lose. The question was a perfect trap.
Jesus recognizes their malice immediately and challenges them. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”
One of the interesting things about this encounter is that Jesus never actually answers their question.
Someone passes Jesus a Roman coin. That doesn’t sound so odd to us today but the Temple had its own currency: inside the Temple, one of these religious leaders was carrying a coin bearing the head of the Emperor – who claimed to be divine. Such a coin should not have been carried into the temple of the God of Israel, who forbids such images. And so Jesus trips them up beyond any hope of recovery by showing that they were bearing proclamations of Caesar's lordship into the very Temple of the God they claimed to be serving with such single-mindedness.
Jesus then gives his famous response. He lifts a tax controversy to a different level, well above the deadlock between revolutionary and collaborator. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” In other words, you can pay him this coin because his name and portrait appear on them so he has a just claim.
“… and give to God the things that are God’s” What belongs to God? Consider! If the emperor claims a coin that bears his image, then certainly God claims whatever bears his image. And what bears the image of God? Of course Pharisees and Herodians are familiar with the Scriptures. They know the Genesis account of how God makes humanity in the divine image. Interestingly, Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened to the coin and I have this picture of Jesus in an act of incredibly powerful symbolism saying “Give to God the things that are God’s” and putting the coin in his own pocket.
Well, that settles the question, doesn’t it? There are things that belong to Caesar, like the money with which we pay our taxes, and there are things that belong to God. Such as …
Such as …
And there’s the problem.
Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians but his statement just raises more questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God? While I admire Jesus for giving an answer that, according to our text, leaves the questioners from both parties walking away amazed at his wisdom, I walk away from Jesus scratching my head in puzzlement. What kind of answer is this, Jesus? What are you saying by this cryptic response that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's?
It is right to pay the emperor taxes using coins with his image. But it is an even greater responsibility to give God what bears his image, namely oneself.
Certainly Christians down the ages have disagreed about what Jesus is saying here, and their different interpretations have led to very different understandings of how the Christian faith and politics should or shouldn't mix.
Was Jesus suggesting, as some have argued, that we as people of faith live in two separate worlds, two separate political realms, the realm ruled by Caesar and the realm ruled by God, and that we are to go through life recognizing the divides between the two and doing our best to keep them separate? Such thinking has led some Christians to argue that topics related to politics have no place in the pulpits of Christian churches.
When political authority tries to muzzle the church on political matters and when the church acquiesces, the very prophetic witness that lies at the heart of the ministries of Jesus and the prophets is always in danger of being silenced or compromised. You may remember the contoversy that the publication of the report “Faith in the City” caused in the 1980s. An unnamed Conservative Cabinet Minister was reported as dismissing the report, before it was published, as "pure Marxist theology" and another claimed the report proved that the Anglican Church was governed by a "load of Communist clerics". Margaret Thatcher famously decried the Church's comments. The spin then was, as always, the church should stick to spiritual matters and stay out of politics.
Only recently the Archbishop of Canturbury has been accused of “meddling in politcs” by a government which had not taken kindly to being told “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” But, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "When people tell me the Bible is not about politics, I ask myself, do they read the same Bible as I do?"
Back to the gospel: I don't think Jesus was answering the question those two political parties were asking him that day. I think he was telling them that they were asking the wrong question.
The real question is: "What does it mean to be a true follower of the God revealed in Jesus Christ? To be one who belongs to God heart, soul, mind and strength. And what would it mean if you allowed that identity to shape everything you do in the political arena?"
This drama does not answer all questions about what it means to be both a citizen in society and a Christian. It does not resolve every dilemma about obedience and resistance. But it does make clear what moral inquiry must take first place: Do I give myself to God? Am I in right relationship to God?
If the answer to these last two questions is “yes,” then perhaps I can live justly in my other relationships, complex and challenging though they may be. If the answer is “no,” if I have somehow defrauded God, then everything else in my life will be out of line, and whatever my good intentions, I cannot live justly with others.
Certainly there are limits such an identity would place upon us in the political arena. To be a follower of Jesus Christ means that we cannot go along with policies that we believe to be against the will of God. We must speak out against them, as Jesus and the prophets consistently did in their own day. Lying in order to provoke war, torturing people in the name of national security, turning a deaf ear to the cries of asylum seekers and refugees, these things are not of God, and I see no way we can justify them in his name.
Nor can we go into the polling station, only looking out for our own self interests. The real question for Christians is not: what's in this election for me? The real question for Christians is: what is in this election for all of God's children, and especially for the least of these, those for whom Christ had special compassion.
We also seem to have forgotten that Jesus was a Jew who every Sabbath of his adult life had recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” The God of Jesus has a claim on all of life. So if God demands all of life, what is left to render unto Caesar?