(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Matt 22:21)
The age-old saying ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ plays a key role in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisees and the Herodians were two rival factions at the time of Jesus; the first a group of fierce religious nationalists who hated the Romans and their ways, the second a group of collaborators who thrived under the Roman occupation of Palestine, and had embraced many of the non-Jewish customs imported by the Empire. Yet, these two bitterly divided groups found a point of unity in persecuting Jesus and – as Mark’s gospel tells us – in plotting to kill him (cf. Mark 6:3).
Jesus had been a strong critic of sectarian groups such as these, and he had lashed out against their interpretation of religion many times before. Now it was the time for Pharisees and Herodians to hit back. And today’s question about taxation finds its origin in their unlikely alliance. In the minds of both groups, their clever question would have been a catch 22 for Jesus; if the Lord answered that Roman taxation was wrong, he could have been accused before the authorities and put to death; while if Jesus endorsed paying tributes to the foreign super-power of his day, he would have lost the support of many of his followers who were, after all, mostly Jewish. But, as we read, Jesus is not fooled by clever arguments; not then, not now, not ever. And I guess many people still struggle with his response to this day.
Even among us there are those who would find it rather satisfying if Jesus had launched himself into a long discourse about unjust taxes, or if he had laid the foundations of modern democracy saying things like “no taxation without representation”. But he didn’t. Likewise, other people would be rather pleased if Jesus had used this occasion to endorse, one and for all, a specific way of government or another, or if he had laid out some clear guidelines for political leaders. But he didn’t. In fact, Jesus only said then, and says to us now, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
But what does it even mean? Is this some clever trick Jesus used to get out of a tight spot? Are these are the words of someone who wishes to sit on the fence in order not to lose followers? One could definitely interpret the story in this way, but it would not quite fit within the Christian narrative.
Here Jesus is giving us a simple moral commandment. He is establishing some ground rules for the ways in which Christians are to behave in in the world. On one hand, Caesar represents the state, and for Jesus giving back to Caesar means paying the taxes we owe and striving to be upstanding members of society. From the gospels it is clear that Jesus does not endorse the brutalities committed by the Roman Empire, or by any other political system for that matter, but he commands his followers to be good citizens of whatever nation they find themselves living in. This idea of good citizenship is also picked up in the writing of St Paul where he says, ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’ (1Tim 2:1-2).
On the other hand, giving to God that which rightfully belongs to him may not seems so clear-cut, so well defined, as filling out an HMRC form or respecting the rules of society. But in Jesus we see that giving to God means paying to him our homage of worship in a way that encompasses everything we do; being constant in prayer, faithful in worshipping together, confident in the faith, generous towards those in need and towards the Church, and pursuing (campaigning for) justice and peace for this world.
In short, today’s gospel recognises that Christians – all of us – are caught up between two competing worlds; between God and Caesar, between the demands of religion and demands of the society we live in; and with his words Jesus strikes some sort of truce between these two worlds. He invites us to play our part in society as good citizens, as long as our duties towards God have the absolute priority, because – as St Paul wrote to the Philippians – at the end of the day ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20).
The king said to his servants, “The wedding is ready;
…go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone.” (Matt 22:8-9)
If you have ever been invited to a wedding you would know how important etiquette and preparation are. Invitations must be sent out well in advance with a clear indication of timings; menu choices and dietary requirements must be returned; suitable gifts and clothing have to be purchased… It wasn’t like this at the time of Jesus. Invitations to important weddings were more like announcements that the marriage would take place at some point in the future; neither the date nor the time were clearly specified for very practical reasons. Only once the bridal party had gathered all the food, wine, musicians, and everything else that was needed, only then the wedding celebrations could go ahead. Only once everything was ready the household servants would go out to round up the guests. And if you had been put on the spot by the sudden call to attend the party, you didn’t have to worry; even suitable wedding garments would have been provided. So if you had been invited, all you had to do was turn up. A bit haphazard, you might think, but in the days before clocks and professional wedding organisers, this worked pretty well, even when the wedding was not an ordinary one. This is a marriage celebration organised by the king; a party that would have lasted at least a week. The closest thing we could compare it to nowadays would be being invited to Buckingham Palace for a week-long lively programme of state dinners with food, entertainment, clothes, and accommodation all provided. Imagine that.
And it is in this cultural context that Jesus places today’s parable. A story in which the King is God the Father, his Son is Jesus himself, and the servants are the prophets of old – some of whom had been maltreated and even killed. The original guests – the ones, who though invited, backed away from God’s invitation to be his holy nation – are an illustration of Israel’s religious elite. To them Jesus contrasts the new guests, gathered from the most unlikely of places; from crossroads. These are the gentiles, the non-Jewish people, us; the ones to whom God willingly extends his call to become his holy people. The wedding garments, which are so crucial in order to be admitted to the feast, are a representation of the habits faith and love we must practice. And finally, the celebration itself is an image both of the eternal life which we hope to enjoy, and of holiness we are called to live in the present.
So reading this parable, what does the call to holiness look like? First, we can say that God’s call is open to everyone. Even if so many people turn his offer down, God keeps inviting. Secondly, we can say that God’s call is a free gift. There is no charge, fee, or hoops that we have to jump through in order to be called to become saints. We do not need to be to prove ourselves worthy of it, because God’s invitation is, and always will be, there. And lastly, we can say that the call to holiness is essentially a call to joy; an invitation and a cause for celebration. For too long saints, holy people, and faithful Christians have been seen as killjoys, but the parable of the wedding feast essentially says, “God calls you to joy now, and to celebration in the life to come.” The only thing we have to do is to clothe ourselves in the wedding garments of faith and good deeds which God provides for us.
As unoriginal as it may sound to us now, the meaning of this parable was ground-breaking for Jesus’ original listeners; everyone is invited to the wedding feast – not just one nation or type of people; each one of us, as the parable says ‘bad and good alike’, is called to become a saint. And we should do well to rediscover this meaning.
1Timothy 6:6-11, 17-19
Christians ‘are to do good, and be rich in good works
…generous, and willing to share.’ (1Tim 6:18)
This week, I spent some time with a group of students from All Saints’ Academy helping them to compose a prayer for the whole school. In our conversation we discussed the nature of hope because it features quite prominently in the school vision. We also looked at how hope differs from wishful thinking; and, in the end, we reached the conclusion that hope must relate somehow to the way we live in order to be different from simple wishful thinking.
In the Christians sense hope is a virtue; it is something that we must put in practice, not an abstract concept. Hope has to inform what we do, so that we can dedicate our efforts into realising or attaining that which is hoped for. So for example, in the case of our students, if I hope for good GCSE results, I must also work towards getting good results and not just sit there waiting for divine inspiration to hit me during exams. Or, in the case of believers, if I hope in the life of the world to come, then I must work to live here and now some of those things I will fully experience in heaven, such as justice, union with God, and peace…
But as we the students and I talked about this, our attention instinctively turned towards many of the terrible world events that would seem to work against any bright hope for the future; terrorism, hurricanes, and mass shootings to name a few. Where does practicing hope fit in all this? And can we even dare to pray for those affected by such tragedies when so many people say that our “thoughts and prayers” are just meaningless words? These are old questions, really. But, as the students were, so some of you might also be aware of the debate which flared up again this week, particularly on social media, about those who pledge their thoughts and prayers when something terrible happens. We see and hear this continually as natural disasters are followed by acts of terrorism, or other downright evil events like the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week. “Thoughts and prayers”, or “Pray for this city”, “pray for that place”; these are the the refrains many people use in such situations, but once the heat of the moment has passed they move on with their lives as if nothing actually happened. And this is really what can puzzles non-believers and turn them away from religion altogether. But, like hope, if prayer is not followed by action, then it risks remaining a sterile act; a list of proposition and requests to an omnipotent being in the sky. Instead, prayer has to inform what we do. Just as being people of hope, should inspire us to build here and now the future we hope to attain, so it is with prayer. If we pray for an end to conflicts, we should be people of peace – peacemakers, even; if we pray for an end to terrorism, we should endeavour to soothe our peoples’ fears; and if we pray for justice, we should in turn campaign for it and begin to act justly ourselves.
But what has this got to do with Harvest? Well, as it is with hope and prayer, so it is with gratitude. This morning we come together to give thanks for the bounty of food and means at our disposal every day; but if all we did today was to just sit here sending up very Anglican, half-asked, “thank yous” to God, I don’t think that would quite be enough. Gratitude, must relate to what we do; it must inform the way we live as Christians. Gratitude must inspire us to show our thankfulness to God in some meaningful, tangible way. So, if we really are grateful for what the Lord provides us, if – as St Paul says in our second reading – we are genuinely content with what we have (cf. 1Tim 6:6) then we ought to show it by offering generous gifts to God out of the plenty we have received from him: gifts that today will provide sustenance to our neighbours in need.
The First Letter to Timothy is quite clear about this. Christians, satisfied by the Lord’s divine providence, should in turn be generous and willing to share. In fact, Paul says, we should do good and be rich in good works funded by the precious gifts we have received from God. So, the food we have brought to church this morning, the food that the families of Thomas Whitehead Academy have offered, all these are our thanksgiving offerings to God, made – I hope – with a willing and generous heart.
Without action hope remains wishful thinking; without action prayer remains a shopping list we present to God; without action gratitude remains a polite nod to God for something we thought was rightfully ours anyway.
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the splendour, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you,
and of your own do we give you. (cf. 1Chronicle 29)
The man went and said to the first son,
“My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” (Matthew 21:28)
As a curate, every time I went on holiday my training incumbent would perform his best impression of a martyr to parish life and say, “You have fun, I stay here working and treading grapes in the Lord’s vineyard”. And in many church contexts the Biblical expression of “working in the vineyard” is usually associated with spreading the faith, managing churches, and making disciples of Jesus, but this is not so much the case in today’s gospel reading. In the parable of the two sons we have just read the man is God the Father who extends to his children an invitation to work in his vineyard as an invitation to holiness, a call to enter the kingdom of heaven ever more deeply by leading a life pleasing to him. In the two siblings we see two examples of how a person might respond to the Father’s call; one who, though initially opposed, reconsiders the Father’s invitation and does his will, and another who, thinking either too lightly of his duties or too highly of his status as son, ends up disregarding the commitment he made, and disobeys the Father.
Jesus used this parable to criticise the Jewish religious elite of his time – we see he addresses the parable as a moral question to the chief priests and the elders of the people (cf. Matt 21:28); to those who failed to recognise God at work in the ministry of St John the Baptist and in his own ministry too; to those who paid lip-service to God, but thought too highly of themselves and did not see their need for repentance. They are represented by the son who said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go’ (Matt 21:30) and so let the Father down. To them Jesus presents the example of faith, trust in God, and openness to conversion given by those traditionally on the margins of the Jewish religious and social establishment, the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes’ and others sinners who were shunned by society. These are represented by the son who ‘answered, “I will not go” but afterwards thought better of it and’ (Matt 21) did the Father’s will.
But this is not just a story from the past. The Lord Jesus speaks these words to us today as well. We could transpose it to our own time by casting in the role of the first son all those whom the Church has cast to the margins, and as the second son all those baptised and confirmed people who have promised to serve the Lord, but whose actions never match their words. And so the implicit question, “Which one of the two sons am I?” is a simple one, but it should encourage us to reflect how we respond to God’s invitation to holiness and to the Christian life.
This is something of which I am personally (and painfully!) aware. In my journey towards priesthood I was very much the son ‘who answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it’ (Matt 21), and after having put off ordained ministry for over ten years, and even after changing Christian denomination, I relented and decided to do something about it. But the call to holiness is not a call to be a priest; it is an open invitation to all, and things don’t get much easier on this front just because you’re wearing a white shirt collar back-to-front. Even now, when the Father calls for deeper holiness, for closer union with him, and greater personal commitment, I am the one who gets side-tracked by other, less productive, activities, and then has to make amends.
Like in the parable, every day the Father renews his invitation to you and me, and to every Christian to work in his vineyard, his call to change our lives and, slowly but surely, to become the person he wants us to be. The way in which we answer the Father’s invitation will determine the way in which we actually live our faith... we could be the ones who go to church, pay lip-service to God, and hide behind our religious paraphernalia fooling ourselves that we are the ones doing the Father’s will, but this is what the second son did. Or we could be the ones who do go to church, who are repentant when we fail, and also aim to live out our faith in a way that matches our words; in a way that what we say to God may be supported or even exceeded by our good deeds.