Pentecost 20 A 20
Those of you who look at Facebook may have seen a thread that has been running for the last few days. It was started by my friend Jarrod McKenna, one of the most notable Christian leaders of our time. He is young, younger than my sons, and yet so very wise. He has embraced the business of non-violent protest and of a prophetic ministry. He has begun all kinds of groups and is becoming known all around the world for his gentle Christian activism. Jarrod is a Uniting Church minister. He practices what he preaches and as a very young man had taken into his home a number of refugee boys. I am very proud to say that he is my friend. His posts are about equally divided at the moment between political, in a general sense of the word, commentary and pictures of his baby who is, I think one of the most beautiful babies ever.
Jarrod posted an article from The Guardian about Greta Thunberg, and headed his post, ‘we need a generation of (eco) prophets.’ The article was interesting but to my mind more interesting, particularly in the light of this passage from Matthew that we read today, was a comment from a keen Christian that said, ‘We need to worship the creator too, we are stewards of creation, it is not an idol’.
I immediately responded, ‘Of course it’s not an idol! It is God’s magnificent creation and I think that we are doing a very poor job of the stewardship. In living well (and by that I mean sustainably) we are worshipping God.’ The person responded with, ‘I hear you, but Greta and Sir David Attenborough are both atheistic and refuse to acknowledge a creator’.
And the exchange went on. This raises, I think one of the difficulties that Christians struggle with in their attempt to be Christian and citizens of the Kingdom of God, as well as living in the world. And it is exactly the dilemma to which Jesus responds in this passage.
The Pharisees, and remember we are in the temple in the last couple of days of Jesus’ life, haven’t got very far with their questioning and Jesus has just told them a very political story concerning Herod, and indeed his own fate, though that is easier to see with hindsight. Whatever the Pharisees and Elders made of it they decided that they needed another strategy so they set up a trap, ( as it happens this is the only time this word which is a term from hunting is used in the NT so Matthew has used it quite consciously.) The Pharisees meant business. They used some of their young disciples and a group named the Herodians, about which we know nothing except that they were presumably embracing Herod. These two groups must have been awkward bedfellows and I do wonder if the Pharisees wanted someone who would report back to Herod directly and he might solve their problem for them.
However it went, this strange coalition came to Jesus and began with a bit of flattery. They say Jesus is sincere and teaches God’s way in accordance with the truth and shows deference to no-one, for he does not regard people with partiality. The Pharisees are presumably having a little dig at the Herodians at the same time as trying to entrap Jesus. This doesn’t soften Jesus up at all, but rather puts him on guard. They ask him the trick question, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ This is a question similar to, ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ Neither Yes nor No is a good answer. They are asking him to choose between religious blasphemy and political sedition. Jesus sees their malice, and doesn’t fall for it. A little background is helpful here as well. The denarius was not legal tender in the temple because it had two flaws, in Jewish law. First, as Jesus highlights, a graven image, that is a picture of the emperor, probably Tiberius, which, violates the 2nd Commandment, and then it had an inscription that claimed that the emperor was divine, which broke the 1st Commandment, as well. Only shekels were acceptable in the temple, so by being able to produce this Roman coin the questioners display their own ambivalence. The language that Jesus responds with reminds us of the temptations in the wilderness around earthly power. Jesus keeps on refusing the temptation to political leadership while continuing to speak into the political sphere. Jesus replies that they should give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. Jesus himself was made in God’s image, not in Caesar’s and that is true for all of us, even the caesars of our world. The problem is when we begin to believe not that we are made in God’s image but that we are God. And that is a question linked to power, and how we use it, of course.
One of the confusing things that we believe is that all power belongs to God and yet the people who exercise it on earth so often seem so very far from God. The passage that we read from Isaiah highlights this. It begins by describing Cyrus, King of the Medes and the Persians, who brings down the Baylonian empire, as the Messiah. God seems to reserve the right to use the powerful, whoever they are, for God’s purposes. In this particular case God uses the Persian King to return God’s people to their land. God is bigger than political systems. The danger then is to see whichever political leader you support as God’s anointed. It also raises for me the bigger question about whether God controls the political scene, or uses the political scene, or doesn’t engage. The reality for us, is that we are called, just as Jesus was, to live in the Kingdom and in the world at the same time. We are called to give to the world the things of the world, to live within its structures, but all the time give glory to God, and to live by God’s rules. I think that Jesus is telling us not to worry too much about the letter of the law, but rather to live by the spirit of the law because God is the big picture in whom we live and move and have our being. We can pay our taxes, indeed we have to pay our taxes, even if we don’t approve of what the government does with them. Jesus doesn’t want us to withdraw from the world because we have to live in the world and the Kingdom of God at the same time.
The question is how we then behave ourselves in the world, both in our own society and as citizens of the global village.
And here I come back to the story I began with. Are we as Christians called to refuse to listen to the atheists who are talking about climate change, because they do not honour God? I am fairly sure that that is not what is required by God. We are called to do what is righteous regardless of who proposes it. We have to pay our taxes but we should also let our government know what we believe, as Christians, they should be used for. We are blessed that we live in a democracy, not an empire, or a dictatorship. The truth is that the Kingdom of God can survive any political system but it must call out corruption, and negligence, unrighteousness and injustice. That is what the Kingdom of God is for! And that is why young prophets like atheist Greta Thunberg and Christian Jarrod McKenna and Brooke Prentis, as well as old prophets like the dear departed Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King and figures like Desmond Tutu and Aunty Pat Turner must lead the way. What does the Lord require? That we should live justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton