Sermons from St Faith's     

Unseating Idols
Revd Sue Lucas, 19th October, 2014

In my first parish, I married a young couple. When I went to see them I was snapped at by their Jack Russell, but that's another story.  Their love for, and commitment to one another, was evident. And they told a story. The young woman had got into debt to what are, effectively, legal loan sharks – pay day lenders like The husband went round all their friends and relatives  asking for what they could spare, but in slummy – in loose change of as small a denomination as possible.  He collected the exact sum she owed – in a Jeroboam. Needless to say, Wonga were not best pleased at having to count it all. But they couldn't refuse – after all, he said, it's got the Queen’s head on it  - it's good coin.

The mark of its validity became, for this young couple, a small but witty and very effective act of protest against an unjust system of debt.

There are strong analogies with today's Gospel. But to devout first century Jews, Roman coin was not good coin. Don't forget, it couldn't be used in the Temple but had to be exchanged. Why? Because it had the Emperor’s head on it. And the Emperor was treated as a god. Roman coin was a blasphemous thing – a hated symbol of the double oppression of Rome and the collusion of the Jerusalem elite in their rule.

And the Pharisees, who here, not for the first time, attempt to trick Jesus, know that. The question they ask him is a question he apparently can't win whichever way he answers. If he says don't pay your taxes, he's an insurrectionist. If he says do, he's colluding with the oppression of Empire.

So he asks for a coin. Not an insignificant detail – he doesn't carry one himself, perhaps an echo of the injunction to his disciples in the so called Mission Discourse of Matthew 10 to ‘carry no purse’ – to be vulnerable.

And his question – whose image is here- draws attention to what the coin is – a graven image, an idolatrous symbol of the power of Rome and its spurious, oppressive economics. So ‘give it back to Caesar’ makes of what ordinary people must do and hate – a gesture of defiance and resistance – throwing the coin of an idolatrous emperor right back at him. Perhaps Jesus’ words here were accompanied by tossing aside the coin that he never owned in th first place.

It is not an accident that the idolatrous graven image is a coin – idolatry is economic, as well as theological; from the idols made of silver and gold in the psalm, to the image of Molech with its feet of clay to the golden calf, idolatry both attempts to trap God – to make God small and mean - as the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus – it also appropriates the material, concentrates wealth and power in the hands of the already wealthy and powerful.  And the wealthy and powerful use theology, as they always have, to control and oppress.

In our own time, we are surrounded by idols economic and religious; the idol of neo-liberal economics, that promises unlimited growth but actually consumes people, resources and the planet; which is why Christian Aid is holding a week of prayer and action on climate change, to which we churches in Waterloo are contributing with our own prayer walk this afternoon; and the trickling down of wealth, which manifestly hasn't happened. And it has its own oppressive theology too, the narrative of dividing and condemning; those who are different; those on benefits; immigrants, and those who are disabled. Nor has it served the wealthy in the long run either; even those who are relatively comfortable see their children unable to get work, even as graduates, or afford somewhere pleasant to live. ‘Spirits oppressed by leisure, wealth and care,’ as the hymn writer Timothy Dudley-Smith puts it. We have not yet done the maths of idolatry.

Yet the church is a small space of resistance to oppressive power and idolatry. For, ultimately, the only image we have of the living God is Jesus, who, enthroned on the manger and the cross, subverts any idolatry, any ideas we might have about what the glory and the grandeur and the splendour of God is, and instead confronts us with God’s odd justice, God’s strange mercy, God’s peculiar power, and God’s economy – the economy of the kingdom, in which the resources of the earth are available for all;

The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be, I will unseat it from thy throne, and worship only thee.  Amen.

The sermons index page

Return to St Faith's home page