Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Sermon Trinity 18 2014

Isaiah 45:1-7
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

There’s a saying that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Meaning, that you can make an alliance with someone else who is opposed to the same person as you. This is not a very reliable saying, however, as it tends to perpetuate violence and spread it further. Though it does seem to be the last resort of western foreign policy these days.

There’s something of this going on in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisees, we read, sent their disciples to Jesus, along with the Herodians. Now the Pharisees and Herodians were actually bitter enemies, but here they have teamed up together to unite against Jesus.

The Herodians were on the side of Rome. They supported the Herod family who ruled Jewish society as puppets of the Roman Empire. The Pharisees hated Rome and wanted to see their land freed from foreign occupation.

So they are opposed to each other on the very question they put to Jesus, about the tax paid to the Romans. This was a poll tax that had already provoked a rebellion that was then put down by the Roman Army. So it was dangerous territory to express an opinion on. The Herodians were in favour of the tax, the Pharisees opposed. But the two groups find a false unity by aligning themselves against Jesus. Why do they do this? It’s a very cunning trap. Both want to get rid of this troublesome prophet, both fear he will destabilise their own power base, and either one group or the other will have the evidence to do so, depending on how Jesus answers the question – so they will both benefit.

But Jesus’ answer, we are told, amazes them. “Give… to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Why is this amazing? What is Jesus teaching here?

Many people read this as meaning that we can have two loyalties, one to God in the area of religion and another to the “emperor” or the state in civic life. But that would not be amazing. That would just be playing it safe. It would also be running the risk of double-crossing one of our loyalties. Jesus himself has already made this clear, in Matthew chapter 6:

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt 6:24)

Likewise, you cannot serve God and the emperor. Jesus is not interested in playing it safe. To see why Jesus’ questioners are amazed at his answer we need to attend to what he does. He asks for a coin, and a description of what is on it. Like our own coins, Roman money bore the head of the emperor and an inscription in Latin. To devout Jews these coins were themselves scandalous. They bore the graven image of the emperor – forbidden by the second commandment. And the inscription was even worse. At the time of Jesus, the emperor was Tiberius, and around the image of his head were the words “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”. The coin described the emperor as a god.

It is after pointing this out that Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ saying does not mean that we can have divided loyalties. It means: give the idolatrous money back to the idolatrous emperor where it belongs. And give to God what is God’s. And what is God’s? Everything. That is what we need to understand. There are not two spheres in which this belongs to God and that belongs to the emperor. To acknowledge God as creator, to reject idols, is to accept that everything is under God’s authority and we owe to him alone our uncompromising loyalty in the whole of life.

So Jesus turns the tables on his questioners by pointing out that their loyalty to Israel’s God is already compromised. The Herodians are really loyal to Rome, and the Pharisees are loyal to their own power and the religious establishment that maintains it.

So, far from being an endorsement of divided loyalties, this is a radical call to loyalty to God alone. Of course, there is a need for earthly authority. There is a need to ensure good order, justice and equity. In the days of Jesus that authority was vested in the emperor and in in our own time in a constitutional democratic state. But the Bible sees all authority as subject to God, serving God’s purposes.

This is why we read about Cyrus in the extract from Isaiah this morning. He was the King of Persia whose invasion of Babylon led to the return of the Jews from exile to their own land. Cyrus is seen as serving God’s purposes, being God’s instrument. Although he was a king and a great military campaigner, that does not matter to Isaiah. The only thing that matters is that Cyrus is serving God’s purposes. So if we have a loyalty to earthly authority, it can only be a relative loyalty, only insofar as that authority serves God.

That doesn’t mean it has to be a religious authority. Cyrus probably knew nothing of the God of the Jews. Christianity has got this wrong in the past, glorifying Christian kings like Henry VIII, or dictators like General Franco, as though their authority was supreme in their own sphere. Just because a state calls itself Christian does not mean that it is above criticism, or that it can claim the loyalty of Christians by right.

Today the boot is on the other foot. The new atheists want to banish faith from public life, and relegate it to a strictly private matter. But a faith practiced only in private is no faith at all. At best it is a hobby. Faith necessarily embraces the whole of life, for it is faith in God who created all things and who has authority in all things.

The privatisation of faith is but another route to giving Caesar – or his equivalent today – absolute authority to do what he pleases. This is idolatry, and idols are destructive and demand sacrifices. If we accept that the state has its own sphere in which it can demand our absolute loyalty, then what is to stop, for instance, euthanasia of the disabled, if that is what the state decides?

But our call is to be absolutely loyal only to God, and to earthly authority only insofar as it serves God’s good purposes for human flourishing. Earthly authority that does not serve God is idolatrous and destructive. We cannot serve two masters. This can be costly, as it was for Jesus, as it has been for martyrs down the ages. But that loyalty is to the God who alone raises the dead, and vindicates the victim; no idols can do this, and any loyalty to them is wasted.

Today Danita joins the people God has chosen and called out of darkness into his marvellous light. Today Danita is consecrated to God by her baptism, consecrated to undivided loyalty, to remain Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to the end of her life. With us, and all the baptised, she will walk the joyful path of discipleship, giving to God the things that are God’s: that is, everything, our whole heart and world and our life from beginning to end.

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