Trinity 23 – Give to Caesar & God

For our citizenship is in heaven; and from it we await a Saviour,
the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Church of England sets aside the Sunday closest to November 11 for a solemn remembrance of those served and offered up their lives in the great wars to preserve freedoms.  (Today is that Sunday.)  We give thanks today for them and their sacrifice, and we also take this moment of solemn remembrance so that we never forget the horror and tragedy of all out war, so that we remain vigilant and determined in seeking peace and justice.

Our readings are not set for Remembrance Sunday, but vary each year depending on where Remembrance Day falls in the Church year.  Today’s Gospel (Matthew 22:15-22) has an interesting political connection.

The God of heaven is speaking to us today in this short encounter about our relation to heavenly and earthly authorities.

For those of you who have only recently been introduced to the Bible, the background for today’s Gospel is that the religious authorities in Israel, the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, all had different reasons for feeling threatened by the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus openly challenged their authority and their ability to teach – in fact the only people we see him strongly criticizing were the religious authorities…and they did not take it well.  They were trying to find ways to have him arrested, and to give the Roman authorities cause to put him to death.

These religious authorities tried a number of times to come up with a question that whichever way Jesus answered he would be condemned.

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The Tribute Money, Titian, 1516

The Pharisees and the Herodians, united in their opposition to Jesus, came to him speaking kind words trying to flatter him, and then the deceptive question comes.  But Jesus sees the trap – why do you put me to the test you hypocrites!  It was a question of their day, whether taxes should be paid by the Jewish people to the Roman oppressors or not.  If Jesus said no, as the zealots said, who had fled to hills to wage a guerilla war against the Romans, the Pharisees could give the Romans a reason to arrest him as an agitator.  If Jesus said yes, Jesus would be branded as a Roman sympathizer and thus a traitor to the Jews.

But the God of heaven gives the perfect answer – who gave you these coins?  Caesar minted them and had them in distribution for good reasons – roads, other infrastructure, fair and freer trade, for order in society and defence against other enemies etc., so the demand for taxes is not unfair in itself.  Jesus affirms the political order – not the oppressions of the Roman government, who had cruel tortures and brutal means of establishing and keeping rule, including crucifixion which Jesus was later to suffer at their hands.  But Jesus is saying that God’s engagement in human history is beyond the boundaries of the Jewish religious authority.  And God’s providence today is at work mysteriously in the establishment of governments around the world, it is not limited to the Church or Christian societies.  So he tells the Pharisees and he tells us, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  Or as St Paul says, “Pay taxes to whom taxes are due.” (Romans 13:7)

But there are limits to the authority of the state, and that is why Jesus speaks also about giving to God the things that are God’s and it is our prior calling.  As the coins bear the image of Caesar, and so should be returned to Caesar, so do our souls bear the image and likeness of God – so we are to give ourselves back to God, in our worship, and in our obedience to the moral law, which is the call to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.

What does God tell us to do?  He calls us to holiness of life.  And God also speaks to us throughout the Bible of the need to challenge injustices – and so part of what we are to render, or to give to Caesar, is our insights and our challenges to any injustices we see, we are not to be silent and bear quietly with oppressions.  The call of St Paul to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7) has its limits (see for example Acts 4:18-31).

Jesus tells us the way that we are to engage in societies to bring about change – he speaks of us as being leaven in the midst of a lump of dough, to bring about its perfecting (Matthew 13:33). Or he speaks of us as being a light shining in the darkness to reveal what is wrong and show what is right, or about salt, mixed in to purify, to flavour, and to preserve things from spoiling (Matthew 5:13-16).  This is our normal way of engagement with the world – not to ignore it or to be uninvolved but rather it is to affirm what is good, and to transform it to make it better by being very much a part of and mixed in to the world we live in.

When situations arise in our country or in a neighbouring country that are leading to the wholesale destruction of human life and of human flourishing, we need to be ready to stand up and make our voices heard, and we need to be ready to be engaged in war but only as a last resort.

Will we in our generation speak out against today’s oppressions? against laws that are destructive to life?  Will we speak out about oppressions in other societies?  Will we show compassion to those in need?

e.g. As we think about the world wars and their horrors, one thing comes to my mind from our sad history is the Jews fleeing oppression in Europe.  Many wonder how doors were not opened to receive them – boatloads of Jewish people came to Canada, the Canadian government turned their backs and other Western governments turned them away, told them the could not come to port.  What are we seeing today in the anti Muslim backlash?  On this very day there is a demonstration by Pegita not very far from here – those wanting us to close the doors on people who are fleeing war, apparently they are anxious about the “Islamization” of Europe.  (Thankfully there was also a demonstration the day before by “Utrecht True Colours” countering the ideas of this group.)  There are 350 million people in Europe – surely we can bring in a million refugees without it undermining our Western freedoms!  Do we not have confidence that the Truth will win out?

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When Jesus calls us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God, he is calling upon is to be engaged in His work of transforming our souls and the societies we live in.

As we give ourselves over to God, he is bringing about the clarification of His image and likeness in us – we are being changed from glory to glory – that is our sanctification, and that is our hope.

Resurrection of Christ, Mikhail Nesterov, c. 1890
Resurrection of Christ, Mikhail Nesterov, c. 1890

And it is not just about our souls that are being perfected – St Paul speaks this morning (Philippians 3:17-21) about the perfecting also of our bodies – Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Of course our souls and bodies are intimately connected.  Our bodies bear in them many wounds from this world and all of us are in need of healing.  When we sin against ourselves, our bodies bear in them the marks, we can be more easily drawn by the same sin again.  Sometimes even when others sin against us in our bodies, our bodies can bear in them the marks of those wounds, and we can be led more easily to sin.

But Christ promises not simply a spiritual healing, but also physical healing of the effects of sin.  And in the resurrection life we can expect perfected heavenly bodies like Jesus glorious body, and that it will clothe our souls refashioned in God’s image and likeness.   Part of that health of body comes about even now as we follow in His ways (e.g. Proverbs 3:7-8; 4:20-23).

This is a promises of God.  He is taking up everything, He is engaged in every way in the created order – our souls, our bodies, and in the wider societies that we live in.  Love is breaking in, and we are all citizens of that heavenly realm.

Through our baptism, in the hearing of God’s word today and letting it sink into our hearts, and in the Holy Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, heaven and earth are joined in a mystical union, a union that is hidden and being made manifest.  Here we participate in what God is bringing about, our heavenly citizenship is being realized.  Let us prepare ourselves now for Christ perfecting us body and soul, and then engage in the task beyond ourselves of being leaven in the lump, the light of the world, the salt of the earth!

Amen.

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The Tribute Money, Titian, c. 1560-8