Sermon for Pentecost 20A (18th October 2020)

Isaiah 45:1-7; Ps 96:1-9, (10-13); 1 Thess 1:1-10; Matt 22:15-22

Jesus was white, believed in a tough immigration policy, supported pay-to-use health care and if He had a gun, he’d have defended himself against the Romans.  This is a Jesus who sounds like a deified version of Ronald Reagan; a Jesus who believes that God helps those who help themselves; a Jesus who rejects biological evolution but believes in an economic version of survival of the fittest.

Jesus was a first-century brown-skinned Aramaic-speaking Jew who believed in same-sex marriage and decriminalizing cannabis and was also a Marxist. This is a Jesus often described in ways that sound like the long-lost love child of Lenin and Lady Gaga and who grew up to become an activist with Antifa (the antifacist protest movement). Progressive politics has adopted a secular Jesus sanitized of anything that sounds too religious.

Sadly, many want Jesus to be the personal chaplain to a Republican emperor, or else, Jesus is invoked to sanction a purge on anyone suspected of not being progressive enough for the public square. Jesus is re-created in either the image of Caesar or Che Guevara.”

Rev. Michael Bird in the Washington Post

Thus wrote Rev. Michael Bird in the Washington post during his visit to the US from his home in Australia in April.

He also suggested that the Apostle Paul had a rebuke for the Corinthians which seems applicable to American politicians attempting to recruit Jesus to support their political position:

I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.

2 Corinthians 11:4-5

One wouldn’t have expected the Pharisees and the Herodians to agree on the issue of taxation. The former oppose the Roman empire and the latter collude with it, however they’re united in their dislike of Jesus and His teaching.

So they flatter Him before posing a question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”. They think that this question will offer Jesus no alternative but to either defy Caesar or offend His followers who are resisting Rome. It’s a loaded question.

The Herodians and Pharisees know fine the consequences of defying Rome. The Pharisees have been making deals with Rome even though opposed to its rule, while the Herodians don’t oppose Roman rule but often side with Rome to pursue their political and economic interests. They’re both testing Jesus in the hope of getting him to say something incriminating. 

In response, he asks for a coin they typically used to pay taxes. The emperor’s image and inscription on the coin are reminders that the Roman empire is an ever-present reality in their lives. And Jesus isn’t about to encourage His marginalised followers to defy the Romans and risk execution.

The question about paying taxes isn’t just a political question. It’s also a moral and theological question. What’s legal isn’t necessarily moral. What’s lawful in Roman occupied Palestine might not be acceptable to God. Hence, even as one pays taxes due to Caesar, one should also pay what is due to God. While people pay taxes to Rome out of obligation, they “pay” to God because of their calling and their commitment to promote His kingdom on earth.

But the “coinage” of God’s kingdom is vastly different to that of Caesar’s. Which is why while people must pay to both Caesar and God, they must pay them not only for different reasons but in entirely different currencies. Paying to God and working for God’s kingdom on earth means being aware of the ways they have been complicit in the less than moral aspects of the Roman empire and its agenda. Paradoxically, then, people should pay the taxes the Roman’s have imposed upon them while actively resisting it and working to promote God’sKingdom.

How do we as Christians deal with the way that we’re governed if we can see aspects of it that are unfair and that marginalise particular groups in our society? How do we remain hopeful and committed to God’s kingdom in the face of persistent evil? What are the mechanisms – the currency if you like – that we need in order to transform our present reality and bring about a different reality that more represents the Kingdom of Heaven?

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us a clue:

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The tax should be paid, since the emperor’s image and inscription on the coin make it part of “things that are the emperor’s”. 

But what belongs to whom? Given Jesus’ repeated use of the Old Testament and his preaching of God’s kingdom, it’s difficult to imagine thatHe would see much falling outside “the things that are God’s” for instance Psalm 24 says: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”.

The beauty of Jesus’ answer is that he both concedes payment of the tax whilst at the same time being subversive. Read one way, Jesus’ answer is simply an affirmation of Christian submission to those who govern. Yet if read from another angle, Jesus affirms the all encompassing reach of God’s ownership that undermines that. The denarius which Jesus called his questioners to produce read “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest), idolatrous claims which Jesus undermines by referring to God’s overall ownership and rule.

What are the claims of ownership and right that Jesus would undermine for us today?  The main issues in this passage are ones of allegiance. If God owns everything, then we and everything else belong to God alone. Yet we live a life in which competing powers and influences vie to own us, to sway us, to capture our hearts. The tendency for what we have to exert ownership on us, means we need to guard against materialism competing with our allegiance and loyalty to God. Jesus call us to live in whole hearted allegiance to God, while navigating lives that often test that allegiance. Such navigation isn’t easy. Yet asking ourselves “what would Jesus do?” can be very helpful at times. Rev. Bird’s piece concludes by saying:

Politics informed by religion is a means to a common good, but politics with Jesus haphazardly tacked on at the end does not make for a good religion. Instead, we heed Jesus’ call for his church to be ‘the light of the world’ and ‘a city on a hill’ by setting forth a vision of human vocation and value that honours the God who made us and redeemed us in Christ.”

Amen.

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