Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity 2017
22 October 2017 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Ralph Godsall, Priest Vicar
A fortnight ago I drove with my wife Ellen from upstate New York to Maryland. It was pretty much toll roads and turnpikes the whole way. At each state and county line we had to stop and pay the toll in cash. Every time we did this, Ellen would say to me, “Would you get the toll?” Ellen is a generous person, but on this occasion she was not carrying any cash. I couldn’t help thinking of our car journey when I read today’s Gospel (Matthew 22:15-22) in which Jesus is asked about paying one’s taxes.
He doesn’t seem to have any cash on him either and says, according to Matthew, ‘Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And then Matthew tells us, “They brought him a denarius,” the Roman coin bearing the image of Caesar. The coin in this story, of course, is more symbolic than real. When the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus, they did well to use tax money as their example. Jewish Palestine was a Roman occupied territory. Taxes were odious not only because they were expensive but also because they continually reminded the Jews that they were paying tribute to a foreign power. So the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” is not an innocent question. It is loaded. If Jesus says yes, he’s endorsing Roman occupation. If he says no, he’s inciting sedition. What to do?
We all know what Jesus does. He asks to see the coin used for the tax. Pointing to Caesar’s image on the denarius, he famously splits the difference: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Countless generations of Christian preachers have seen this saying as a warrant for Christian obedience to civil authority. But before we go there, I do find it interesting that Jesus has to ask somebody to bring him some money. Indeed the most important feature of the story is that Jesus has to ask for a coin.
We are so used to projecting our own values and habits onto Jesus that sometimes we need to step back and see just how different from us he is. He was a Palestinian Jewish peasant. He did not live in affluent Western culture. Life in Roman occupied Jewish Palestine was hard. Taxes were high, food was scarce, and the state was not your friend. Survival in that world required a measure of shrewdness that most of us don’t have to exercise on a daily level. Keeping going from day to day was in itself a kind of victory. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Should I cooperate with established authority or resist it? For first-century Palestinian Jews, this was a serious and vexing question.
In traditional Jewish thought, there was no separation of church and state. The religious and political establishments were supposed to be one and the same, and so the question of paying taxes to Caesar never raised itself when Israel was ruled by a Jewish king. But now the Jews found themselves in a new world: the political and religious establishments were under separate authorities, and they lived under foreign domination. Should I give money to support a non-Jewish Gentile occupying power? The Torah teaches that everything belongs to God. Is it right to fund those who worship somebody other than Israel’s God? These questions are neither innocent nor easy. And when we translate them into our own moment they don’t lighten up much. As a Christian, just how much allegiance do I owe the state?
The easy answer is to read Jesus literally and see him as providing an early version of the separation of church and state. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” But the radical thing in Jesus’ teaching is not that he endorses allegiance to civil authority. The radical thing in this statement is that he gives us a way to be both citizens and people of faith.
When Jesus tells us that we must render to God and Caesar the things that are their own, he is offering us the opportunity to be faithful citizens. It means neither unthinking obedience nor eremitic detachment. A faithful citizen is one who holds both God and Caesar in critical tension with each other. The best way for us, as Christians, to “render unto Caesar” is not only to pay our taxes but also to hold Caesar accountable to God. Jesus’ teaching does not absolve us of the obligations of citizenship. It impels us toward deeper engagement with public life and policy.
Like my wife Ellen, Jesus did not carry money. Ellen is not poor (and pays her taxes), but Jesus was poor. His poverty reminds me how crucial a role people of faith in church and state in this country have played since the creation of the welfare state 75 years ago in affirming our moral need as a nation to care for one another and to ensure that no one falls utterly through the safety-net. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The kingdom of God is about communal relations of mutual interdependence. It’s about reciprocal patterns in which you read to me in my blindness and I listen to you in your despair. The human predicament is fundamentally not so much about the limitations of our circumstances or the shortage of resources but about our isolation from one another and from God. The welfare state cannot heal the profound wounds in our lives made by the breakdown, or absence, of companionship, trust, healthy reliance on one another, and practices of kindness. Faceless bureaucracy, in which our primary connection to each another is economic and utilitarian, can never supply what only human touch and genuine encounter can offer. This is where the work of the church principally lies in working with government to uphold the things of God in national life.
There’s also little use handwringing and despairing that as a nation we can no longer afford the blanket of well-intentioned anomalies, compromises and inconsistencies we call the welfare state. We can focus on scarcities all we like but the secret of happiness and the key to the kingdom is to enjoy the things that God gives us in plenty. Life is full of structural injustice and inherited unfairness and circumstantial inequality. But while the church works and walks with people to address and endure such things and seeks to hold the government to account, it also proclaims a peace that passes understanding, a joy found in Jesu’s desiring, and a love that never lets us go.
>Archbishop William Temple may have been right in 1942 to say that the creation of the welfare state proposed by the Beveridge Report sought to embody the spirit of Christianity in an Act of Parliament. But the truth is Christianity cannot be legislated, it can only be lived, and if we concentrate too much on what the state should do through welfare we can lose sight of what welfare can never do.
So, if you are carrying cash this morning, when the collection plate comes your way, take out a coin or a bank note and look at the image or picture of Her Majesty the Queen and ask yourself the question they put to Jesus. God or Caesar? Church or State? We are tied inexorably to both. There is no easy answer. That’s why following Jesus is so challenging.