Lectionary Sermon for 19 October 2014 (on Matthew 22: 15-22)

(My main source in the preparation of this address was some writing by Charles Hoffacker who at the time of my reading was rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Port Huron.)

A rich but miserable man once visited a rabbi seeking understanding of his life and how he might find peace. The rabbi led the man to a window looking out into the street and said “What do you see?”

“I see men, women, and children,” answered the rich man.

The rabbi then took the man and stood him in front of a mirror. “Now what do you see?” he asked.

“I see myself,” the rich man replied.

“Yes” said the rabbi. “It is a strange thing is it not? In the window there is a glass and in the mirror there is a glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, and you see only yourself.”

In our newspapers over the last few months there have been stories from all over the world with a common theme. When previously wealthy people find their way of life threatened, governments fall. When a government dares to try to balance the books by suggesting tax increases there is a massive reaction. Dare to suggest stewardship to help refugees, and the cry goes up – get things right at home first. When their wealth is threatened people become very upset. They have been surprised that this could have happened even to the most wealthy, and yes, they are understandably very angry. Yet for years they have not appeared to have noticed how the many, many thousands of seriously poor people have been getting on.

Maybe the wise rabbi knew something we might all think about.
Which brings us to today’s reading.

There are some phrases which are so familiar in English that just about everyone knows them. And as with some of the well known phrases in Shakespeare, today’s reading contains one of of the stock sayings: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. What we tend to forget is why the phrase was said and why the part we usually miss out is actually more important.

The statement Jesus made may have been clever and wise but I suspect it is also one which is often misinterpreted. I have heard it used to justify the need to pay taxes and I have also heard it used to justify paying a tithe to a Church… but I fear that both of these suggestions gloss over the main point Jesus was making.

If we wind the scene back it is probably worth just checking out why Jesus’ enemies were out to get him in the first place. Remember there were in fact two main groups who were getting increasingly uncomfortable with the sorts of things Jesus stood for.
First we have the Pharisees who were clearly well respected and firmly in control as the educated religious leaders of the day. They were certainly not forgetting their religious duties and in fact there is good evidence that they tithed – not only with money but also with produce. However Jesus had an unfortunate habit of reminding them that it was not the slavish obedience of religious law that really counted, rather it was spirit of servant-hood behind the teaching that mattered. Jesus also took exception to the status the Pharisees accorded to themselves.

Jesus time after time in his parables and actions showed that what he valued was actions of compassion – not position. Religious people who placed themselves above others were frequently his target – and those who might normally be expected to seem of least value were the ones who most often attracted his time and concern. It is important to reflect on why the Pharisees were made to feel uncomfortable with Jesus because it is possible that if we agree with Jesus there may be a need to look again at the way Church leadership is exercised today in terms of accorded status and direction of leadership.

Church leadership was only one part of the leadership of the community – the other part was of course the legal and civic leadership. Which brings us to the other main group who were deeply offended by Jesus…. the Herodians. These were the in- group of leaders installed by Herod Antipas. They were probably despised by many of the day because the Herodians were only able to retain power by supporting the Romans who were the invading power and were therefore seen by many as traitors and collaborators. Because it was in their interests to do so, they were strong supporters for the severe taxes demanded by the Romans – and in this they were very different to the Pharisees who thought that the tithe paid to the Church of the day was the key to appropriate tax.

Although they used honeyed words to start their conversation with Jesus, his questioners must have realised that no matter which way Jesus answered he would be giving the greatest offence to one or other of the two groups – and in fact leaving himself open to charges which in those days carried the death penalty.

Listen to them: “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.” That is the flattery bit. And now the no-win trap question….. “Is it lawful or not to pay taxes to the emperor?”

If he says “no” – he is to be reported to the Romans. That would be incitement to disobedience to the Romans who held ultimate authority. The Romans would have no compunction in sentencing him to death.

If he says “yes it is legal” – those against the invasion would publicise his reply, treat him as a traitor and at best he would lose his main support. It is truly a lose-lose situation.
Jesus recognizes their vicious trap immediately and challenges them. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” And why “hypocrites”? Perhaps it is that they have forgotten that there are more important and different values than those concerned with money. By talking taxes they are overlooking the higher values which they themselves offend against.

Jesus asks for a coin.

We remind ourselves what the coins meant in those days. New Zealand coins like the other coins of Commonwealth countries traditionally show on one side a portrait of the British sovereign Elizabeth II surrounded by an inscription. This design is a descendant of the coinage of imperial Rome when the symbolism mattered more. In those days the portrait then was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviated form, included the emperor’s name and his titles. The coins of the Roman Empire circulated over a vast area populated by people of many races and languages. The empire at the time of Jesus included Judea and Galilee and by the time Jesus came on the scene Rome had had just about enough from the fractious, fiercely patriotic Jews. The coins were used as part of the Roman answer. The coins quickly replaced local currency and became the only accepted form of money exchange. In the days of imperial Rome, back before photography and television and modern travel, coins along with sculpture were also the only ways that most of the residents of the empire had to see what their emperor looked like. These coins were essential to trade and taxation. They were also designed for control. People became dependent on them – nothing else had commercial value.

Jesus then was actually asking to see the coin used to pay the tax. He is handed a denarius. A denarius was a silver coin, a day’s wages for an ordinary labourer. The denarius brought to Jesus almost certainly depicted the reigning emperor of the day, Tiberius. One type of this denarius of this emperor has been found in every part of what was then the Roman Empire. The Latin inscription on this coin is translated: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus and Augustus.” [John Yonge Akerman, “Numismatic Illustrations of the New Testament” (Chicago, Argonaut, Inc. Publishers, 1966), p.11.] Notice that the Romans often claimed divinity for their emperors so the inscription would have been quite offensive to the Jews who recognised no other divinity but their God. So here, in the inscription the Jews would be reminded of the offence of Tiberius, portrayed as heir to his so-called divine predecessor.

Jesus now asks what seems a simple question. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” There was only one possible answer, the emperor’s. No-one would want to be heard discussing the inscription.

Jesus then gives his famous response. He is actually lifting the argument above his questioner’s attempts to portray him on one hand as a rebel or on the other a collaborator. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” Now this is not quite as straightforward as it might first be seen. He didn’t say for example pay all taxes on demand. There is the hidden requirement of justice and fairness. It is hard to argue that we should pay what fairly belongs to the authorities – but if it were unfair – now there is a different issue. If unjust there might even been a case for non payment. Remember the second part. Again a hint of ambiguity: “And give to God the things that are God’s

Sometimes, you see, these notions can be confused.
Some years ago – one of my pupils told me her mum won Lotto. Mum being a keen Church goer and with a very humble approach to life – took a few simple necessities out of the 17 million dollars – then thinking her local Church could do with a new church building gave virtually the whole amount to her church via the pastor. Was that giving to God? The minister seeing the cheque made out to himself, took the money and ran. Mum was doing her best to give to God…. But the minister whatever his title, did not represent God in his actions.

What belongs to God? Consider! To go back to Lotto – it gets complicated because too much betting can destroy lives, yet if the Lottery Commission gives a proportion to worthy community programmes like Children’s hospitals and hospice nursing then surely it is not so clear. If the emperor can make a claim for a coin that bears his image, then wouldn’t whatever we mean by God be entitled to claim what bears God’s image. But what bears the image of God? Here it may not be easy. I don’t for example think we should necessarily think of the Church as automatically representing God’s image. Maybe we should follow something more like Christ’s words when he said, “as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters you do it to me”. At the very least Jesus’ through his parables and actions portrays compassion and justice as key ideas. In the Old Testament we find God’s image in the poetry of Genesis …and I guess in creation. But if Christ’s face, and a response to a God of Love or God in Creation is to be seen in our words and actions this is not achieved by a simple label of “Methodist” or even “Christian”.

Those of you who know me know that my hobby horses change from time to time. The current church related hobby horse is that there is a time to get oneself audited against one’s aims and aspirations. The Methodist Church with its mission statement has a great set of aspirations. I would even go so far as to suggest that to follow these aspirations would indeed provide a set of reminders about what it is to give to God what is God’s. But we also need a reality check. It is one thing to say we have these aspirations and it is quite another to seek signs that we are working towards their expression. Hence the suggestion that we individually and collectively might check up to see if the things we say we are striving for have any degree of real meaning in our thinking and actions.

Much of the Church Union debate between the Roman Catholics and the Protestant Churches focuses on the theological significance of communion – which then presumably takes our leaders’ time and focus. Yet when another issue like approximately one billion people in a world population have poor security of food supply leads to untold suffering there is the question if we are really rendering to God what is God’s if we allow this to take second place to an interminable argument about the theological significance of transubstantiation.

Yes it is inevitable that reluctance to share will play an important part in controlling our decisions. Jesus points us to another set of values that he reminds us must also have a part in our lives. We ignore that at our peril.

Let us pray that we might begin to notice that the image on the coin is only one part of life – and that Jesus provides a different way.

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