(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).
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)