Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast talk for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity. I have also posted separately the parable I have written to go with it!

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Gospel Reading: Matthew 22:15-22

At this moment, in 2020, we are living through tumultuous times. We are all having to change the way we live because of the present pandemic. The pandemic will eventually come to an end and, at the end of it, all our lives will doubtless have been affected. We are, though, also living through other events that too will permanently change our lives, more so than even the pandemic. We are witnessing huge political and social changes both in the west, not least, for example, in America with the presidential election and the BLM movement, and also here in Hong Kong with, for example, the protests and the national security law, which is China’s response to them.

This week’s Gospel reading raises, then, an important question for believers. Our Lord said, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s.’ But what is the emperor’s and what is God’s? And what, more broadly, should be our attitude to the ‘emperors’ of today? How are we to view those who rule and those who aspire to rule in the world?

Our Lord’s saying had a context, and we need to begin by seeing what that context was. In Matthew’s Gospel, the incident described in our Gospel reading took place during what we now refer to as Holy Week, that is, the week leading up to the crucifixion of our Lord. In Matthew chapter 21, St Matthew has described how our Lord, on what we know now as Palm Sunday, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. This seemingly innocuous act, which we have domesticated and, dare I say, trivialized, was, in fact, a highly inflammatory and political act. It was how the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah, the rightful King of Israel, would enter the holy City when he appeared (Zechariah 9:9).

The significance of Jesus’ action was not, however, lost on the crowd. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they cry (Matthew 21:9). This cry is an acknowledgement that Jesus is the true heir to the throne of David, the greatest King Israel had ever known. That our Lord chose to make this symbolic act at Passover, which celebrates the people of Israel’s liberation from slavery under a pagan ruler made it all the more pointed and significant.

Our Lord didn’t stop there. He proceeded to the Temple where he ‘cleansed’ it by violently getting rid of those who were desecrating it (Matthew 21:12-17). No wonder that those in positions of power and authority demand to know by what authority he does this (Matthew 21:23). Jesus, however, refuses to tell them; he tells them, instead, three parables.

The first parable (Matthew 21:28-32) is about a man who had two sons whom he wants to do work for him. One son, at first, seems unwilling, but eventually he does what his father wants. The other son claims to be willing, but does not do what his father asks. Jesus says the tax-collectors and prostitutes, those regarded as the worst type of sinners, are like the first son because despite their sin, they have repented and put their faith in him. The religious leaders are like the second son. They might claim to be obedient, but they don’t do what God wants. They are all talk.

The second parable (Matthew 21:33-44) is about a landowner who had a vineyard that he leased to tenants who try to get it for themselves, killing the landowner’s son in the effort. Jesus says that the religious leaders are like those tenants and God will punish them just as the landowner punished the wicked tenants.

The third parable (Matthew 22:1-14), which we looked at last week, is about a King who held a wedding feast that all those who were originally invited refused to go to. The King gathers unlikely guests in their place, punishing those who would not come. But even the new guests can’t expect to get in unconditionally for many indeed may be called, but few are actually chosen.

St Matthew tells us:

‘When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.’ (Matthew 21:45-46)

Unable, then, to act directly against Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees instead try to entrap him. In an attempt to do this, they send along their representatives together with the ‘Herodians’ to ask him a question. The Herodians are not a group we know a lot about. It was a group made up of those who supported the political government of the day. Herod himself was the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee where Jesus comes from. Think the pro-government parties in parliament today.

They begin by flattering Jesus and saying that they know he will give an honest answer. The question the representatives of the Pharisees and the Herodians then ask Jesus seems reasonable enough. They say to him:

‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ (Matthew 22:21)

This helps to explain why the Herodians are there. At first, it seems strange that the Pharisees should team up with the Herodians. The Pharisees didn’t like Roman rule any more than most of the people did. The Herodians, however, depended on the Romans for their position and influence. While, however, the Pharisees hate the Romans, they hate Jesus more. They know that if Jesus says that it is unlawful for the Jews to pay taxes to Rome, then the Herodians will do their work for them. Jesus will be dealt with ruthlessly.

However, if Jesus tries to escape by saying it is lawful to pay taxes, then he will have discredited himself in the eyes of the people. Everyone hates taxes, but the tax to the Emperor was about more than money. It represented Israel’s political slavery to Rome. By making the Jewish people pay it, Rome demonstrated who it was who had the power. How could someone who claimed to be their King, believe it was lawful to acknowledge someone else as the ruler over them?

The Pharisees have been opposed to Jesus from the start of his work, and Jesus has now in his parables made his view of them plain. This is their chance to get rid of him or, at least, to thoroughly discredit him.

The Pharisees, like everyone else, Jesus’ own disciples included, probably thought that becoming King, over-throwing the Romans, and establishing his Kingdom in this world was actually Jesus’ goal.

Given this, their calculation is that Jesus has little choice but to say that taxes should NOT be paid to the Emperor. The Jewish people were subject to a greater law than that of the Romans. Jesus was acting like he was the King; if he wanted go on being seen as the King he had to answer, or so they thought, that it was not lawful to pay taxes. Once he did this, they would have him. End of problem. And they wouldn’t have to lift a finger, the Herodians would do that for them. The Pharisees could claim they have asked a legitimate question, it is not their fault what happens as a result of Jesus’ reply to their question.

Jesus gives what is universally regarded as a brilliant answer. He asks for the coin used for the tax. This is a silver denarius. It was the equivalent of the daily wage of a labourer. On one side, it had the image of the Emperor with in Latin the words: ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus’. On the other, it had the image of a goddess with the words, ‘High Priest’. The Pharisees themselves couldn’t be blamed for having the coin – as some commentators suggest they should be– but they could be blamed for holding on to it. Jesus tells them:

‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22:21) 

The problem for the Pharisees is that they assume that Jesus is like them; that his goal is political power and position. They don’t know that this was one of the Devil’s tests that Jesus had faced at the start of his ministry. Jesus had, at the outset of his ministry, resolutely rejected the offer of the very power and glory that everyone thinks he is now in Jerusalem to claim.

Jesus does seek a kingdom but, as he says to Pilate after being betrayed by one his own disciples, his ‘Kingdom is not of this world’. If it were his followers would be fighting for him (John 18:36). Pilate himself would have no authority over Jesus if it hadn’t been given to him ‘from above’ (John 19:11). Pilate and his limited power isn’t important or powerful enough to waste time in fighting. Jesus’ Kingdom is a different type of Kingdom. The powers Jesus is about to confront are greater than Caesar’s armies, and Jesus’ way of defeating them is by suffering and shame, not through power and might.

It still is his way.

Jesus saw a cross and, in this sign, he conquered. In AD312 before a critical battle, Constantine, who sought to be Emperor himself, also saw a cross in a vision, and seeing it as a sign, used it to conquer the armies that opposed him. In so doing, he transformed the cross into a symbol of the very power our Lord had rejected as demonic.

The Emperor Constantine was to offer the Church a similar partnership to that which the Devil offered Jesus. This time the offer was accepted. The Church went on to enter a relationship with the world and with those who exercised political power in it that has shaped it ever since.

[I have tried to explain how I see this relationship in a simple parable. It is available to read in the Christ Church Facebook Group and on my own personal website.]

Now to be fair, the relationship has not been all bad. A recent book by the author, Tom Holland, tellingly called Dominion, describes some of the good. The Church has exercised influence over the world, but, equally, the world has exercised influence over the Church. This, however, is not the time to rake over the past. It is what it is. Far more important is where we are now and where we go from here.

As I try to make clear through the parable, the world has decided it has had enough. It wants a divorce. And in the same way that former lovers often end up hating one another, the world is increasingly hating and despising the Church it once loved and used.

The Church, for its part, finds it hard to let go of the relationship it has had in the past with the political powers of this world and which has been so central to how it understands itself and its mission.

It is particularly hard for Anglicans. We took getting into bed with earthly rulers to a new level of intimacy. In the 16th century, when the Pope refused to grant the King of England a divorce, we stepped up and obliged, and so became identified with the state in the most intimate of ways. As England, and then Great Britain, marched on to become a world super-power, we marched enthusiastically with her.

Those who point the finger at the Church and accuse us of complicity in the colonialism of the past have a point. Again, personally, I don’t think it was all bad. After all, in even a destructive and abusive human relationship, a child can be born who goes on to do great and good things. So, too, with our relationship with political power. We can be proud of our children despite the inappropriateness of the relationship through which they were born.

However, just as people in relationships that are coming to an end find it hard to let go and do all they can to please their lover in the hope that the relationship can be saved, so too it seems we are willing to do what we can to maintain a relationship that, in reality, ended, to all intents and purposes, many years ago.

Perhaps worse still, to change the metaphor, we are so used to having a seat at the table of earthly political power and influence that we don’t want to lose it. Power not only corrupts, it is highly addictive.

We need to accept it is over, and come to terms with what it means for us as the Church. Rather than mourning what is lost, we need to see this moment in history as a chance to re-think what our role and mission in the world ought to be. This is an amazing opportunity. In the same way as someone who is eventually freed from an abusive relationship can begin to regain their self-respect and confidence and so begin find their own identity outside of their former relationship, so, too, the end of Christendom (the name given to the partnership between the church and the world) can be a chance for us to re-discover our calling to be the people of God.

It will be painful, as the end of all relationships, even abusive relationships, always are. However, instead of re-writing our liturgy, re-defining our doctrines, and changing our ethics to please the world and hold on to our place in it, we have a chance to abandon the idolatry that is at the heart of any relationship with earthly political power and instead to ‘worship the Lord our God and serve only him (Matthew 4:10).

By accepting the relationship is over, our liturgy can be about worshipping God rather than about being relevant to the world; our doctrine can be about what God has revealed to us about himself, not what we think the world might find it acceptable to believe; and our ethics can be about obeying God, not accommodating to the values and attitudes of society around us.

Make no mistake, this is not going to be easy. Old habits die hard. Ironically, our former partner may make it easier for us. So far, the world has tolerated its former partner. There is now evidence that it wants rid of us altogether. The reaction, for example, to Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the United States exposes how some feel about any suggestion that faith in Christ has a place to play in a nation’s life. The nomination of a woman and a mother you would have expected to be welcomed, instead she has been vilified for no other reason than actually believing what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Such reactions are by no means confined to the United States. We can all expect more of the same.

How then is the Church to see its mission in this brave new world determined to go it alone? For many, political power and involvement have been so integral to how they understand the Church’s mission that it remains inconceivable to them that we should abandon it, even though the political powers have not only abandoned us, but are now often openly hostile as well. The statements of Church leaders, for example, continue to make more mention of the political issues of our day than they do of God. Who do they think is listening to them? We are urged in our mission to be ‘for the City’. In chapter 11, Matthew writes:

‘Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,

will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.

For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’ (Matthew 11:20-24)

Was our Lord ‘for the city’ when he said this?

Our mission statements too continue to focus primarily on social and economic areas, and this at a time when many are desperate for spiritual meaning and, ironically, are turning to ancient forms of paganism to find it. New age beliefs and practices are thriving. In schools, mindfulness and positive education seek to fill the void that has been created by the very materialistic philosophies that are taught in those same schools.

Now is the time to change.

Here, in this world, ‘we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14). Our’ citizenship is in heaven. And it is from there that we are expecting a saviour, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Philippians 3:20). While we wait for him, we ‘set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth’ (Colossians 3:2).

These words from the New Testament are like a forgotten language to us, but one we need to learn to speak again. We will do so knowing the trouble it will bring. In this world, we will have trouble (John 16:33) and in the same way it hated our Lord, as we again speak for him, so too it will hate us (John 15:18).

Rather than being surprised at the society’s hatred of us, we should be happy. Did not our Lord warn us that this is what we should expect if we are faithful to him? Did he not say:

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Matthew 5:11-12)

We rejoice to be the Church of the martyrs; those who ‘love not their lives unto death’; those who see the Cross not as a sign of triumph and glory in this world, but of defeat and death; those who rejoice, not in having power and position, but in suffering and service. We rejoice to be a Church which is not ashamed of the Gospel, knowing that it is the ‘power of God unto salvation’, a power that no earthly power can ultimately resist. A Church which rejects the Devil’s offer of all the Kingdoms of this world because we know that our Kingdom is from above.

At this critical moment in history, we are called to be the Church that our Lord said he would build. We are no longer to be the Church of those in political power or of those who crave that power for themselves. We give, as our Lord commanded, to the emperor what is the emperor’s, that is, the respect and the revenue which is his due. To God, however, we give what is God’s, that is, everything we have and everything we are for he has given us everything he is.

‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). Now is the time for us to die to the world and to ourselves, and to begin to live for him.


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