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Rendering unto Caesar

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 22nd October, 2017

It was a very crafty move. We know from the end of Matthew chapter 21 that the chief priests and the Pharisees wanted to arrest Jesus, and their latest ploy was for the Pharisees to join forces with members of Herod’s party to try to trap him. The question they asked him reveals why this combination of Pharisee and Herodian was so devious. The Pharisees, after all, generally resented the presence of the occupying power of Rome with its heavy taxation. The party of Herod, the Jewish puppet King installed by the Romans, however, supported Rome and its inventory of taxes. So when this unlikely alliance of Pharisee and Herodian asked Jesus whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor, Jesus was caught between the rock of appealing to be a lackey for the Romans, and the hard (and dangerous) place of being charged as an agitator against them. Jesus’ reply, “pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” escapes the trap, but it’s open to two interpretations. The first is that we live in two realms, the political realm (where Caesar rules) and the religious realm (where God rules) and we divide our allegiance accordingly, recognising responsibilities to both. In this way we live in two, parallel Kingdoms and there is clear separation between the two.

The other much more likely interpretation, however, hinges on the fact that Roman taxes were paid in Roman currency, and Roman coins bore upon them the image of Caesar and the words, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine august and high priest.” This combination of “a graven image” and the attribution of divinity to Caesar made even the carrying of Roman coins deeply offensive to many Torah-observing Jews, and it’s significant that Jesus had to ask for a coin – he didn’t carry one. Given this, Jesus here is turning the tables on his interrogators, criticising by implication those who are even asking his question and carrying this currency. N this interpretation Jesus’ answer has more of the thrust of, “you cannot serve two masters.” Rather than affirming Caesar alongside God, Jesus’ point is that the sovereignty o God trumps the rule of Caesar every time. In effect Jesus is saying, “Give back to Caesar this odious coin with its graven image and submit to the true, sovereign, God.” 

We might, of course, find this interpretation problematic as, for many, any stress on the Lordship and sovereignty of God isn’t good news. Are we not, after all, sick of lords of any kind? Human lords turn out far too often to be tyrants, and has not the lordship of God been used to oppress people – slaves, or women or gays or whatever? And we don’t like the language of submission which goes along with lordship. The human race, after all, has come of age. We shouldn’t see ourselves as beholden to, and dependent upon, a sovereign God who lords over us. Isn’t it better now to think of God as friend, or lover or partner who affirms human capability, coming alongside us rather than ruling over us? This, however, is to misunderstand the sovereignty of God. What misses is that, rightly understood, the Lordship of God subverts, undermines and puts every other would-be Lord and sovereign in its place – exactly what Jesus is doing here – and hence it’s part of the freedom manifesto of the kingdom, “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21). So whether it’s the lordship of oppressive rulers, or the lordship of materialism and consumerism, or the tyranny of racism and sexism or any other power which dominates and constrains our lives, the appeal to this higher, ultimate authority spells freedom. Or, as Walter Brueggeman comments, “the social purpose o a really transcendent God is to have a court of appeal against the highest courts and orders of society around us. Thus a truly free God is essential to marginal people if they are to have a legitimate standing ground against the oppressive orders of the day.” In other words, “Pay to Caesar what belongs to C aesar and to God what belongs to God” contains an implicit invitation to appeal to God against Caesar.

This is the thrust of our reading from Isaiah chapter 45 which is addressed to the Kingdom of Judah as it languishes in captivity in Babylon. Cyrus is a foreign King, the proud ruler of Persia, the up-and-coming superpower of his day. He has military muscle and imperial clout and other nations tremble and quake before him. But in the hands of the sovereign God of Israel he is a pawn, a puppet, through whom God will accomplish God’s purposes – and these purposes amount to an end ot exile and captivity for Israel. “I am the Lord and there is no other “proclaims this God, relegating every other would-be- lord and ruler. So it is that a strong note of sovereignty and Lordship prompts a song of liberation and relief for a captive people, as in Psalm 96 we read “Sing a new song to the lord! Declare his glory among the nations …. Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is more to be feared than all gods …” And the psalm ends by extolling God’s judgement, the fact that “He will judge the earth with justice,” for only one who is totally sovereign can truly be judge. Only such a God can provide the platform from which justice is given to those who are tyrannised by other, lesser lords.

So, lastly, to Thessalonica. What is significant about that city is that it was home to a plethora of gods; Greek gods, Egyptian deities, a Phrygian divinity, along with the Roman Imperial cult of emperor worship. No wonder St Paul refers in verse 9 of Chaper 1 to idols – these were the main features of Thessalonican religious life, woven into the everyday life of the city. But Paul had come, along with Silvanus and Timothy, and had proclaimed the Gospel an people had turned from idolatry to be servants of the true and living God.” Note the language of servanthood. Here was submission to the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. Only this submission spelt, not just one more captivity to one more god, but rather liberation into life with Jesus “the deliverer.” We don’t have to live under Roman Rule to b lorded over by powers and authorities that constrain our allegiance, and we don’t have to live in Thessalonica to be subject to idolatry. We just have to live in the modern world. Jesus’ words, “Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” are a proclamation of God’s transcendent authority, and, as such, they are the foundation of the liveration manifesto of the kingdom.

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