Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s

Pentecost 20

Isaiah 45.1-7- Psalm 96- 1 Thess 1.1-10 – Matthew 22.15-22

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector


‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’

I had scheduled these past few days to be on retreat in silence at the Cistercian Abbey of Rougemont, a religious community gathered under the rule written by St Benedict in the 6th century, and who today still live out a form of the life as set out by one of the founders of monasticism.

Benedict sought to help men and women in their search for God through a life focused on prayer, work and study, set apart from the world yet providing hospitality, living a solitary life in community, in monasteries that he called ‘the school of the Lord’s service’.

Cistercians, recognising that we meet God when we meet others, and that living in community is not easy, have added an additional descriptor to their common life – a school of charity – because rubbing shoulders with others on a daily basis is never that easy.  Something we could also apply to our cathedral life too.

The monks take vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life, reflecting that their quest will in one sense never end.

As the latest war from the near-East was unfolding, I was glad to be away from the 24-hour news cycle and instant reactions, having space to make some sense of the claims and counterclaims from all sides while trying to navigate disinformation, propaganda, and name calling on those who show either a pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian view point.  It was good, in the deep silence of the monastery, to be able to focus on praying for a ceasefire and peace, for politicians and peacemakers on all sides.  And especially holding before God all those who are suffering and grieving loss of loved ones, homes, and hope.

A year and a half after the beginning of the Ukraine war, it feels like this latest conflict in a region beset by wars is bringing the world dangerously close to another global conflict, with superpowers taking sides as much on the basis of internal political expediency than the plight of the civilians caught in the power games of some.

As a preacher, I was reflecting that ever since ordination, there has probably not been one sermon in which I was not compelled to mention war, violence, unrest, disaster, and the plight of the powerless.  In my short span of a little over a quarter of a century, things have not changed much – except that news cycle are faster, and with social media and now AI, verified facts are harder to get as automatically manufactured narratives are shaping opinions at an increasingly rapid rate, creating ever faster polarisation.

Our Bible, spanning some four thousand years of history, is littered with the death of many caught in the crossfires of combat in the near and middle east, with powers rising and falling, all the way to the hegemony of the Roman empire.

And yet it also gives us a longer perspective and a framework for our meditation.

More than ever, in our search for the God of Truth, justice and peace, Christians – and people of all faiths – are called to slow down, consider our sources of information, take time to form a well-informed opinion, and stand in solidarity with all who pay the high price of conflict.  We can’t all go to a monastery for a few days, but we can all take a breath before hitting send on a social media response or forwarding an unchecked opinion.

High level and low level conflicts were of course part of the daily life of Jesus, living as he did in a country under occupation by the Romans.  This may have brought with it some stability in the region, but it also generated uncomfortable alliances including between the religious authorities and the people in power.

And the religious leaders did not like to see the rise in influence of this young upstart preacher who felt like a troublemaker, and a challenger of the balance which allowed some to milk the system while others were toiling to survive.  And so, Jesus was forever being tested with questions to which there were no acceptable answer, so that he might be found to be on the wrong side, having incriminated himself, making him open to judgment.

The question set today to trap Jesus is one that has passed into common usage – ‘Render unto Cesar what belongs to Cesar’ – though most of the time, we forget the other half – ‘and to God, what belongs to God’.

In those few words, Jesus manages to elegantly escape the condemnation that his questioners were seeking for him, but what did he really say?

That we should dutifully pay our taxes?  That all money belonged to power? That God was not interested in government?

As I was reading to prepare for this, I was reminded by Cali Hammond’s commentary that from the fourth century, this short passage of the Gospel (Matthew 22.21) began to be interpreted as a proof text for the separation of religious and political powers.  This conveniently fitted in with the adoption of Christianity by Emperor Constantine as the dominant religion, thus providing an official narrative that supported Empire.  It is unlikely to have been Jesus’s meaning though.
Hammond writes that if we read this Gospel in isolation, we miss a fuller message.  But the juxtaposition of this text with Isaiah 45 which we heard first helps the Holy Spirit to liberate readings to speak to each other.  In both those readings, God is seen to expect to support only “his” people, and yet he entrusts his will to people who have never heard of him, still less worshipped him.

The emperors Cyrus (in Isaiah) and Caesar (in Matthew) have much in common, although they come from different lands, and from different eras. They both founded empires, were both conquerors of territory, asserting control, extracting wealth, imprinting their personalities on the civilisations which they led.

The prophet Isaiah says that Cyrus, a foreigner, is God’s chosen one: his “Christ” (“anointed one”) to save God’s people by restoring them after their exile.

Prophetic messages often take us by surprise. But, as Hammond writes, ‘such prophetic voices as we have often suffer as their biblical forebears did. Today’s mainstream and social media alike can have a prophet crucified on the altar of popular opinion in no time.’

We have seen plenty of this happening in the past two weeks.

Isaiah reminds us of an unpalatable truth in verse 7 of our passage: “ today – I make weal and create woe.” Woe, a more sybilline modern translation rendered in earliest versions as:  “I make peace and form evils” (Septuagint Greek); “I make peace and create evil” (Vulgate Latin, AV). Other modern versions render this for “well-being and disaster”, “prosperity and doom”, or “prosperity and disaster”.

But it is in the earlier translations that we get a clearer sense of what the original Hebrew says: ‘I make shalom, I create evil/calamity.”

This is not an easy line, because it is hard to hear that God creates peace but also calamity, even evil. This does not sit well with our understanding of a loving God.

Reading Jesus’s answer to the pharisees in light of our Isaiah passage, Jesus avoids judgment because he is not saying anything wildly radical, but instead, actually saying what the Pharisees themselves actually think.

Because they have recognised the benefits to them of Roman imperial control which affords them protection and a leadership role in the superpower of the time, even if it comes at a cost.  And who would not prefer stability, prosperity and peace to disorder and rampant crime.

In his response, Jesus avoids collapsing religion with politics – which was the malicious intention of his questioner – but instead he gives importance to both, confounding his questioners.

And in the Isaiah prophecy, we are reminded that God sometimes calls the most unlikely of political leaders in order to bring back God’s people on the right path.

(We are about to bring Arwyn to baptism, and today’s world is the world in which promises will be made on her behalf by her parents Chelsea and Geoffrey, and godparents Sia and Carrie.  As they make promises, the Church – all of us – will also make promises, to help her as she grows and matures to live out in the ways of Christ.

And we will also be able to ponder the promises made for us at our baptism – and inwardly check them for ourselves.

Let us pray for the grace to fulfil them in a world which needs the work and witness of dedicated people of faith more than ever, even if it does not know it.)

Amen.

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