St Bride's: Sermons

God and Caesar

God and Caesar

When Jesus was confronted by hostile Pharisees they wanted him to make a definitive statement about the position of the secular authorities. His reply on seeing the coin with Caesar's head on it was that they should pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. They wanted him to say something seditious so that they could complain to the Roman occupying force that this man had said it was wrong to pay taxes to Caesar.

If he'd said it was right they could have accused him of supporting that alien force.They already had quite a lot of evidence for that, because one of the intimate disciples of Jesus was Matthew, who had forsaken national and religious loyalty to work as a tax collector for the Romans.

The answer must have been stunningly disappointing. Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
The answer has caused problems for the Church ever since.

The conviction has arisen that the business of Church and state is separate. The Church is responsible for spiritual things.
It exists to serve God. The state, on the other hand is concerned with the material well-being of the people. The two sides keep to their own concerns, and one does not interfere in the affairs of the other.

Of course, it's never been as clear-cut as that.

There have been plenty of occasions, for example, where the state has taken over the Church, and in our own Church of England in the sixteenth century, the monarch replaced the Pope as head of the Church, and the governance of the Church became a matter for parliament.

Even today when the church wishes to make changes to its liturgy the whole process has to be subject to legislation passed by a secular body. But underneath there has always been the conviction lurking that Church and state function in differing spheres and there is little overlap.

The state does not berate the Church for its failure to subscribe to orthodox doctrine. Likewise the Church is not expected to trespass on the concerns of the state. Very neat, really, until you look at today's first reading.

The Persian king Cyrus is referred to as the Lord's anointed one. Isaiah goes even further and says that the king is the means whereby the power of Yahweh becomes known in the world: Though you do not know me, I have armed you so that it may be known from east to west that there is no one except me. Orthodox Jewish teaching at the time of Jesus would similarly be that Caesar, on this understanding was the servant and minister of God.

So though the coinage belongs to Caesar, everything in the end belongs to God. God is to be found in and through everything and even the pagan Romans are answerable to him, though they do not acknowledge his existence.

So what Jesus is saying is, yes, OK, pay the money to Caesar, but don't forget that God is one and that he creates and sustains in being all that is. So at a very important level there is no separation, no duality between sacred and secular, and it is impossible to talk about the things of God without referring to everything that is.

This conviction is underlined by God's being born into the world as a human person, to declare the sanctity of everything that exists, especially the human race.

All life comes from God, and the Church is in the business of proclaiming that and developing the kind of community where God is acknowledged and worshipped, and where the response of the community to the God of love gives rise to a set of values which includes a concern for social justice and support for the weak.

So it is not dualism that the answer of Jesus should produce, but synthesis - a realisation that every area of life belongs to God.
To insist on separation is perilous in the extreme for the Church's integrity, though it may lead for a time to a quiet life.

In Germany in the 1930s the Lutheran Church took the line that the Church did not exist to serve humankind or the German people but only the Word of God. A synod in 1934 attacked the theology of the German christians, but was careful not to attack the theology or practice of National socialism. Later Karl Barth admitted that disaster might have been averted if the Church had not kept silent over matters to do with the exercise of earthly power.

In other, perhaps less dramatic ways, since then, the Church has tended to remain supine, content with the notion that there are two kingdoms, the earthly and the heavenly, distinct and separate. For Jesus, whilst God was One and supreme, money was a real rival. The best thing to do with Caesar's money was to give it back to him.

If we are true to the Gospel we cannot remain on distinct 'spiritual' territory and ignore the so-called secular and political world.
In any case we clearly belong to both worlds by the nature of the lives we lead. We form opinions ourselves, and we are influenced by others.

To be true to the Gospel we have to be prepared to engage in a critique of political philosophies and pay no heed to those who tell us that we are too ill-informed to have a valid view.

There is a long tradition of christian social theory, rooted in the doctrine of the incarnation. To heed the Gospel, to move the mission forward, is to work for the recognition of the God of love. But in view of that love we must also work for the transformation of society.

To give to God what belongs to God means to be willing to question all social and political assumptions and to be prepared to refuse to be satisfied with things as they are.

As change has been part of the Church experience from the beginning, so impatience for change and improvement in society is part of our tradition, but any initiative will be doomed to failure unless it is built up on faith in God and starts here at his table, where barriers are down and the arms of his Son Jesus reach out in embrace to all.


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