201018 – Sermon for Pentecost 20 Year A
Isaiah 45.1-7 – Psalm 96 – 1 Thess 1.1-10 – Matthew 22.15-22
‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s
As I approach my three years in Montreal, I am now a little nearer to recognising the coinage that is used here. Almost, but not quite. I always get caught out by the fact that the smaller coin has greater value than the bigger one, that the 10 cent is a smaller coin than the 5 cent. I am sure that there must be a parable somewhere in that.
Having said that, even before the start of the COVID pandemic, I was not someone who carried cash much, if at all. I gave in to the spirit of the age a long time ago, and I have been more likely to pay by Apple Pay or by payment Card than paying cash for quite some time now.
So if Jesus had asked me to open my wallet to get a coin out, it could have been a bit of a difficult discussion. Oh, wait, I do have a coin – and yes, I see the face of Queen Elizabeth the Second – though it would not have occurred to me, nor to any of us I am sure, that the coin I now hold in my hand belongs to her or to the Crown.
The way we have long understood coinage and banknotes is that they stand for a value that we can exchange easily, so that we can trade with one another in a practical, convenient and portable way. Certainly more portable than the ingots of gold that were at one time the equivalent value stored somewhere underneath our central banks, guaranteeing that the coins in our pockets did have real value, until everyone wanted their little bit of gold back.
However, as likely as not, I would not have a coin, and all I would be able to present to Jesus would be some plastic cards. No faces on them, just clever designs, sophisticated digital technology and the name of a financial establishment. What does that mean about the money that I am able to access in that way? Mine, the Queen’s, the Bank’s? What would Jesus say about that?
Over time, the value of our money has been detached from the gold that guaranteed it within our central banks, so that to some extent – at least when we are borrowing on those cards – the money certainly belongs to the Bank, even if we spend it on things for ourselves. And sure enough, we will have to pay it back to Mr CIBC, Mr Desjardins, Mr BMO and so on.
As for taxes, in most societies at least, we have evolved systems that are less corrupt, and which provide for the needs of our societies rather than simply to prop up megalomaniac monarchs hellbent on funding their wars or their self-aggrandising projects.
Of course, as with any encounters with Jesus, the gospel story which we heard this morning is a little more complex than we like to think, and it is certainly not about the separation of church from politics, as many often like to choose to interpret those well known and almost hackneyed words.
‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s’
As usual, a very clever intellectual somersault by Jesus who was being once again cornered by a group wanting to catch him out. They had been working on their question for a while, a question to which the two possible answers which they had thought of would likely land Jesus in serious trouble.
After much flattery of their prey, the question is delivered: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not.
If Jesus answers yes, he is sure to anger the temple authorities and the people, because it would be a sign that Jesus supported the occupation by the Romans and recognised their power.
If Jesus answers no, then he puts himself in trouble with the Roman authorities for fomenting rebellion in acts of civil disobedience.
A lose lose situation.
In a quick witted – and possibly almost Anglican – response, Jesus is able to find a way through this conundrum.
Look at the coins. Because they bear the face of the emperor, then of course taxes can be paid, because they are within his realm.
To God must be given the things of God.
While this answer deflects the immediate danger for Jesus, it does not say very much with regards to the relationship between the emperor and God, between Church and State, at it is quite obvious really that there cannot be two separate realms – one which deals with money and power, and one which deals simply with the things of the spirit.
Because monarchs of whatever ilk derive their power from somewhere, and from the beginning of time, kings and emperors have claimed their power over realms and empires on divine ground, even when they actually came to their position simply by force.
Coronations have been elaborate affairs with a strong spiritual element and a wide range of symbols, one of which is that of anointing, so that the monarch becomes literally a Messiah, an anointed one of God.
Today we read in our passage from the prophet Isaiah about Cyrus, the only non-Jew in the Bible to be called the Lord’s anointed. Now Cyrus was a successful but complicated king, someone who built the first Persian empire and had a lasting influence on the middle East.
He did not deal much with matters of the spirit, other than allowing those he conquered to continue to practice their own religion, to great effect. He was very ambitious and by all accounts a fair monarch.
He came to posterity in the Hebrew sacred text because he liberated the Jewish exiles from Babylon, sent them on their way to the promised land, and helped them build the temple. While the text before us is full of promises for this anointed Cyrus who is being led by no other than the hand of God, it is also clear that Cyrus does not know God and that all the blessings and powers bestowed on him are gifts from God in order to ensure that he should fulfil the mission God has given him to ensure justice for the powerless.
But even he will fail in the end, consumed with projects to feed his own ego at the expense of the people.
In a strange and topical twist, for some in the Israeli Government, as well as for some white evangelicals south of our border, the incumbent at the White House is being seen as a Cyrus figure. For the former, for reclaiming Jesuralem as the capital of Israel, and for the latter as the one that will deliver the supposedly exiled evangelical christians back to their rightful place – though the Jewish people in exodus and the powerful religious right of the USA bears no comparison.
Suffice to say that, throughout Biblical history, God has been able to use rulers of questionable leadership for some good, even if they fail in the end. The beautiful language of Isaiah is a powerful reminder that – even for those who would govern us – God is in control in the end.
‘I am the Lord and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe. I the LORD do all these things’.
Jesus’s answer to his questioners bursts a bubble, it does not in fact say much about the relationship between God and state, but implicitly we know and understand that a ruler is there by the grace and providence of God, and therefore is a subject in the divine order – rather than sitting on a level with God.
As New Testament scholar Charles Cousar notes, ‘Whilst the coin may bear the head or Icon of the emperor, human beings bear the image or Icon of God – so while they may not escape paying the tax, they do not belong to the emperor, but instead belong to God – …wherever we might live and operate in the social, economic, political or religious realms.’
This means that, whilst Jesus does leave room for temporal arrangements for governments, we cannot infer or solve from his response any issues relating to the obligations that Christians might have towards those who govern them – whether taxation, conscription, and other problematic questions.
However, what we can infer is that – like it or not – there is an authority higher than governments, an authority for whom all human beings bear God’s image and therefore belong to God. When governments deny that divine image in their people and they are made less than human, Jesus’ response spurs us on to reach out to the oppressed and against the oppressor.