Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
I wonder what thought processes you went through in coming to church this morning? Maybe a bit of planning ahead, or last minute rerouting, to get through the road closures in Cambridge today. If you’re new to Cambridge, maybe there was a decision to be made about which church you might go to. But I suspect that for none of us was there a sense of danger in coming here: no careful planning of our route to ensure we weren’t seen; no need to read a secret symbol to indicate the place of meeting. I hope that when you arrived you were welcomed unquestioningly, not scrutinised to see whether you were a known and trusted face, or a stranger potentially sent to spy on the goings on of the congregation.
If this sounds outlandish, consider the situation of the first Christians, or of twenty-first century Christians in parts of the world. In the earliest days of the Church, being a Christian made you deeply suspect in the eyes of the state. Jews had secured exemptions from the religious demands of the empire, their strict monotheism and observance of the Law prohibiting them from offering sacrifices to idols or ascribing divinity to the emperor. Now Christians, who called Jesus ‘Lord’, similarly refused to pledge absolute loyalty to the state. They recognised that their citizenship of Christ’s kingdom laid an ultimate claim on them that shaped their living as citizens of the world. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to confess that Caesar is not. In the light of this confession, all claims made by people, empires, nations and institutions are revealed to be provisional. The deeper, truer reality is Christ and his kingdom.
And if you were trying to hold together an empire and enforce conformity, this Christian faith was dangerous stuff. It revealed the limits of state power; it subverted social hierarchy by its insistence that all are one in Christ; in the earliest days it disrupted family life and social structures by its encouragement of celibacy, and its discouragement of Christians serving in the military appeared disloyal and unpatriotic.
The Roman authorities were unforgiving of threats to political and social stability. They’d already crucified the founding agitator of this new faith; now they turned their attention to his followers. As a result, to be known as a Christian in the earliest Church to was risk imprisonment or even death.
Outright persecution of Christians lay in the future when the episode recounted in today’s gospel reading took place. But the background context was the same. Roman justice was swift and uncompromising when loyalty to Caesar was questioned. The question posed to Jesus is designed to entrap him.
The Pharisees and Herodians make an interesting alliance. We don’t know much about the Herodians, but from their name we can tell they were supporters of Herod the Great and his successors in Palestine. This makes them unusual: Herod and his successors were puppet rulers, there only with the permission of the hated Roman occupiers. Most Jews resented Roman rule, which claimed the land they considered theirs by divine right, and imposed a heavy burden of taxation on them.
The Pharisees would have been of this mind, but hanging on to their power and status meant accommodating themselves to the Roman occupation. They are likely to have had little in common with the Herodians, but, working on the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, they make common cause against Jesus.
‘Is it lawful’, they ask, ‘to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?’ They’re not really interested in the answer, only in forcing Jesus into a position where he loses support. If he answers yes, that taxes are lawful, he will lose support among the ordinary Jewish people who are made poor and disenfranchised by the tax. If he answers no, he will lay himself open to charges of treason, and can be arrested and kept safely out of the way.
‘Show me the coin used for the tax’, says Jesus. Remember, this conversation is taking place in the temple: the most sacred place in Jewish religion, where God himself was said to dwell. And the Pharisees hand over a denarius, the equivalent of a day’s pay for most labourers. On one side would have been an image of the reigning emperor, and on the other the words ‘Tiberias Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus’ (or high priest of the Roman religion).
For a Jew, the very possession of such a coin broke two of the ten commandments. The emperor’s claim to divinity went directly against God’s first command that ‘you shall have no other gods before me’, and the coin itself bore a graven image, forbidden in the second commandment. That the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, had these coins on them at all, let alone in the temple, shows their own accommodation to the ways of Rome. Jesus rightly addresses them as hypocrites.
But there’s more to come. ‘Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’, Jesus goes on. ‘And to God the things that are God’s’. The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed at this answer. And that should give us pause for thought, because too often we’re not amazed by it at all. We assume it means that there are two realms, the state and the church, or the secular and the sacred, and that our loyalties are divided between the two.
But they shouldn’t be. If we ask ‘what is God’s?’ then the answer from scripture comes that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’. Which doesn’t leave a lot of room for Caesar. So you can’t just shove religion off into the realm of the private. If we really believe that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, then that has implications for our stewardship of the environment, for our economic policies, for what we believe about human rights and human flourishing, in fact, it reaches into every aspect of our lives.
Like those earliest Christians, confessing that Jesus is Lord dethrones all other rulers. And that means our first loyalty is not to a ruler or a political party or a nation or an empire, but to Jesus Christ. Belonging to his kingdom shapes our living as citizens of our earthly realms. Jesus, by his life, death and resurrection, shows us the divine love that gives itself freely, generously, and without limit; a love that brings peace without ever resorting to violence or coercion; a love that brings healing to the broken, belonging to the outcast, justice to the oppressed, and freedom to us all.
And this is the love that we are made sharers in, and the life we are to continue living. To confess Jesus as Lord commits us to being in the world as he was in the world: revealing injustice and hypocrisy, loving the unlovable, feeding the hungry, practising a radical hospitality and dependence on God, and, where necessary, challenging the use of authority when it is coercive or unjust, or when it lacks mercy.
The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed at Jesus’ answer to their question, because it reveals the accommodations they have made to the rule of Caesar. They, who confess that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the creator and ruler of heaven and earth, are shown to be quite happy paying homage to Caesar if it will secure their power and privilege. We should expect similar revelations of our own accommodations, which are usually to be recognised when we feel our loyalties are divided. When we confess that Jesus is Lord but live as if our identity depended on our success or prosperity or security, we have rendered to Caesar more than he is due. Conversely, when we confess that Jesus is Lord and start to live his life a bit more, start to practise the sort of hospitality, generosity and mercy that make space for the love of God, then we reveal our true citizenship, and the kingdom comes a little bit more on earth as it is in heaven.