Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 19th October
Have you ever noticed that, because we’re living through particular events, “Jesus words can leap from the pages of the New Testament” and give us a very contemporary take and insight into the troubles we’re experiencing. How about this one?: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and thieves break through and steal, but instead lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.“Of course Jesus isn’t speaking just about ill-advised investments, but to all of us who get corrupted by the desire for material possessions so that money and things get given a higher value than people. Those idols we worship reflect the inner corruption from which Jesus came to save us.” began the Daily Service one Thursday morning on Radio 4 - and it seemed a fittingopening as we seek to understand our gospel reading and the implications it has for our lives. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is the way we probably remember it.
But what do we make of it
• A piece of sensible advice?
• Just a well known saying – perhaps a little trite – like something we might find in a Christmas cracker or fortune cookie somewhere?
Well no I really don’t think so – and certainly not if we properly understand the significance and impact of what Jesus is saying in yet another situation where the Pharisees are trying to trip him up and trap him into pronouncing something that would give them an excuse to silence him for good. Things are hotting up for Jesus as Matthew’s gospel reaches its climax.
The reading is quite complex and intricate for such a short passage. We’ve got conspiracy and cunning, plans and alliances, traps and escapes - and all this in just 176 words! (Sad man that I am, I counted them!). So as we have a quick look What they’re trying to do is to get Jesus to incriminate himself - to say something against the Romans (and particularly the emperor) so they can do something to keep him quiet.
There were two main groups arguing against each other at that time about one of the hottest topics around: the Roman taxation system (as will be the case in the build-up to the election - have things ever changed?). One was called the Herodians: a group of Jewish people who supported Herod Antipas (the one who had John the Baptist beheaded) and who wanted closer and better ties with Rome. They supported Roman taxation and believed it was only right that everyone pay the Roman poll tax.
Needless to say they were loathed by all other Jews The other group was the Pharisees - a religious group that objected strenuously against paying anything to Rome, claiming it was a heresy to do so. They based this claim on the fact the tax had to be paid in Roman coins that had an image of Caesar on them – and of course one of the main commandments of the Torah was not to make any graven image. They refused to pay anything except the Temple Tax, which would have been paid in Jewish shekels.
The amazing thing was that when it came to Jesus, these opposing groups had decided to get into cahoots together – such was the sense of threat they felt from him. (We’ve seen similar strange alliances in the Church trying to block the idea of women’s ministry over the years – and especially Women bishops). Actually they’d been getting their heads together for some time to come up with their foolproof idea – ever since Jesus had had the temerity to heal a man with a shrivelled hand on the Sabbath.
What they’d failed to cotton onto was that Jesus was master at the game they were playing.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The conspirators thought that there were only two possible answers. Yes, it is right to pay taxes or No it’s not right. Either answer would condemn Jesus. If he said it is right to pay taxes, they could accuse him of being a traitor to the Jews and of being in favour of the Roman occupation. This would alienate him from all his supporters. And if Jesus were to say it was wrong to pay taxes, then he would prove he was against Rome. The Jewish leaders would then be able to say Jesus was a dangerous subversive who could be handed over for trial and execution – because this is way they had summarily dealt with other populist leaders of the time – and Jesus would have known this.
So they send off their team of disciples, their lackeys (Luke, in his version, calls them ‘spies’) to set Jesus up. Their first action is to try and flatter him and lull him into a false sense of security. They say that they know Jesus to be a man of integrity who wouldn’t say anything just because it was easy or convenient, but would speak fairly and honestly. Then they ask their question. (I bet they were smiling to themselves and thought “Gotcha!” as they waited for an answer. But from what happened I don’t think any smugness was on their faces for very long).
Before he gives an answer, Jesus asks to see a Roman coin, a denarius. Notice that one was presented straight away – big oops! This immediately showed the utter hypocrisy of objecting to Roman coins when they were in such common usage: everyone was using them, including those trying to trap him. Anyway, Jesus then asks whose image and inscription is on it? This was a good question, because at that time, any item with a man’s stamp or inscription on it belonged to that man. Therefore the coin belonged to the emperor - Caesar. “So if it belongs to Caesar, give it to him”. But there was something else. Around the edge of the coin, proclaiming to all the world who he thought he was, Caesar had words that would send a shudder through any loyal or devout Jew: they were the words “Son of God”… How could any Jew be happy to handle stuff like that – filthy lucre – and yet they were all at it.
So we watch the scene unfold as Jesus takes the coin from them, ‘like someone being handed a dead rat’ is how the New Testament scholar Tom Wright, describes it!
Jesus probably looks at it with utter distaste. ‘Who is this…image’ Whose head is this and who’s title? Who is it that gives himself an inscription like that? By his obvious disdain, he’s already shown what he thinks of the emperor, Caesar, ah but he hasn’t actually said anything that could get him into trouble. He’s just turned the question around, and is ready to throw it back at them. “It’s the emperor’s”, they reply, stating the obvious, but also admitting they carry Caesar’s coinage. “Well then”, says Jesus, you’d better pay the emperor back in his own coin, hadn’t you?
It’s an astonishing reply. What did Jesus mean? ‘Paying Caesar back in his own coin sounded like revolution; but standing there with the coin in his hand it sounded as though all he was saying was you should pay the tax…. “Jesus’ reply is as enigmatic as it is famous.”
Because there’s another part to the answer isn’t there? “….and you’d better pay God back in his own coin, too”. Now I’m glad even Douglas in a Harvest sermon a while back also used the word ‘gob-smacked’ because that best explains the kind of astonishment going on here. Did Jesus mean that the kingdom of God was more important than the kingdom of Caesar after all, or what?
Now let’s be clear. Jesus wasn’t trying to give an answer for all time on the relationship between God – or religion – and political authority or the State. For most of us there’s a messy reality of trying to live out the Christian life by the light of the gospel in a complicated world where there aren’t easy answers. But that wasn’t the point. What he was doing was countering the Pharisees’ challenge with a sharp challenge of his own.
Wasn’t it they, after all, who were the collaborators and compromisers? With all their religious pomp and show, had they really - really - given their allegiance to God?
Or were they trying to have their cake and eat it too? Were they playing games, keeping Caesar happy while making a big show of speaking to God?
Doesn’t this raise questions about our faith too? Are we really and truly committed – or are we compromising left, right and centre?
Of course we can only fully understand what Jesus was doing here in light of the whole gospel story. He wasn’t trying to wriggle out of personal or political danger – he’d already told his disciples he was going to Jerusalem to be crucified – so he was continuing to walk straight towards it. And they didn’t understand yet that his calling was not to be the kind of revolutionary they had known. God’s kingdom was going to defeat Caesar’s, but not by conventional means - by the victory of God’s love and power and forgiveness and grace over even death itself.
Let’s never forget that Jesus’ mission was – is - to come and seek out and save lost people. Remember him singling out that odious little tax collector Zacchaeus – hated by the people for bleeding them dry – and it’s to him that Jesus offers a sign of forgiveness. When Jesus shouted: “invite me to be your guest”. Zacchaeus knew that if he and Jesus ate together it was a sign of reconciliation and offered him this chance to begin again – just like he does with us, forgiving us over and over again. Zacchaeus seized the opportunity to pay back what he’d ripped off from people and compensated them for it. This lost man was found. And his conversion was demonstrated not just by words but by generous deeds – Jesus changed his life! And we need that conversion in ours – that relationship with Jesus as Lord and King which changes us. We might not have emperors we worship – but we do have other stuff - other sources of attention we put first – our time, our priorities, our patterns of living.
Paul writes to the small Christian community in Thessalonica and praises them for their work of faith and labour of love; the steadfastness of their hope in Jesus – and said they’re an example to all around. Wouldn’t it be great if he felt able to write such a letter to the saints in Waunarlwydd.
Julie and I were at a clergy synod on Friday encouraging us to preach from the epistles because they’re to realpeople coping with real issues – so watch this space!
May the Holy Spirit continue to move us to be the people God planned for us to be. Amen