Monday, October 20, 2008

Sermon -- 19 October 2008

Proper 24 / 23rd after Pentecost — 19 October 2008
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am

Exodus 33:12-23 Ps 99 1Thess 1:1-10 Matt 22:15-22

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

The gospel today is a study in conflicting loyalties. And speaking of conflicting loyalties, we start right out with the Pharisees making common cause against Jesus with the Herodians. Very strange allies, the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were very religious. They were even more religious than God. They were very devoted to the observance of the Law of Moses, and beyond the written Law in the Torah, to a body of unwritten Tradition. The Pharisees were fiercely nationalistic, and very much opposed to the Roman hegemony in Palestine and occupation of Judea. They regarded the presence in the Holy Land of these Gentiles — who of course were not only present but were in power — as a blasphemy against God. However, the Pharisees were generally not in favor of armed insurrection against the Romans. They believed that God would intervene to save Israel and re-establish the Israelite Kingdom, and for human beings to take matters into their own hands by force of arms betrayed a lack of faith.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were not very religious at all. They were not a clearly defined party, but were people who were supporters of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch or prince of Galilee in the north of Israel. Herod Antipas was of course a puppet of the Roman Empire, and to support his rule was in effect to support or at least collaborate with the Roman overlordship. Certainly the Herodians were content with the status quo, a status quo in which they were rich and prosperous. They would have shared Herod Antipas’ aversion to religious rabble-rousers like John the Baptist and were doubtless relieved when Herod did away with John. And this Jesus seemed like one more religious fanatic that for the sake of stability and order they could well do without.

So the Pharisees and the Herodians shared this, at least: opposition to Jesus of Nazareth, though for very different reasons and out of very different loyalties. But this actually served their little plot well. Here was the deal: Confront Jesus with the issue of taxes to Rome, which were understandably unpopular with the people, first because they were taxes (!) but especially because they were paid to the Roman overlords. This issue, they thought, would put Jesus in a no-win situation. If Jesus said, yes, it’s okay to pay taxes to Rome, then the Pharisees could accuse him of disloyalty to Israel and to the Law of Moses, and thus discredit him among the people. On the other hand, if Jesus said, no, it’s not permissible under the Law of Moses to pay taxes to Rome, then the Herodians could complain to Pontius Pilate the Roman governor that Jesus was disloyal to the Empire, probably an insurrectionist, and should be done away with.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!”[1]

“Christology” is that branch of theology which considers how we are to understand the relationship of Jesus of Nazareth to God — what we mean when we talk about the Incarnate Son, or the Word Made Flesh. Some of it gets pretty boring; even I find some of it kind of boring. There are very traditional statements (and I would insist true!) such as the Definition of Chalcedon that you can read in the historical documents in the back of the Prayer Book. Some radical modern commentators prefer to talk about Jesus as a wisdom guru, or a Cynic philosopher, or an illiterate but charismatic faith healer, or whatever. A point that they often miss is that, whatever Jesus may have been, he was not stupid!

And so when the Pharisees and their temporary cronies the Herodians come to him with this little trap, Jesus sees right through it. And of course the rest of the story we know. (And have just heard!)

Sometimes this response — “Give back to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and give to God what belongs to God” — is taken as some systematic or legal pronouncement on church-state relations. As if our obligations could be neatly divided into a “religious” pile and a “secular” pile, and these are the things we owe to Caesar and these are the things we owe to God, and never the twain shall meet. This is an interpretation much beloved by those who don’t want anybody to mix politics and religion.

[Excursus: Every time the Church has acquired political power, it has been corrupted by it. On the other hand, any religious faith that does not inform every aspect of our lives, including our politics, isn’t worth holding. End of excursus.]

What is there that does not belong to God? What on earth, or in heaven, is there that does not belong to God, that is not God’s creation, that is not ultimately accountable to God and destined to be caught up and transformed into the final consummation of God’s Kingdom? “Give therefore to God the things that are God’s” — it would be interesting to see what we think that leaves out! And of course that’s exactly what Jesus means in his response to the Pharisees and the Herodians. Where is your ultimate loyalty? Where else can your ultimate loyalty lie? (And not just later, not eventually, but now!)

On the other hand, contingently, provisionally, human institutions such as political structures and governments do have legitimate authority and a legitimate claim on our proximate loyalty. Although states and nations — and churches, insofar as they are human institutions — have made and do make idolatrous claims and we sometimes yield them idolatrous loyalty, that is an abuse, not the proper use of their legitimate authority. Christians, even when they were being persecuted to death by the Empire, insisted that they were, and tried to be, good citizens. Governments exist for the sake of the common good, and thus they have a legitimate role in the building of the Reign of God. Do they often fail in this vocation? Yes, as human institutions; yes, as do we individually as sinful human beings. But as human institutions governments ultimately are us; they are the means of our corporate action, and we are responsible for them and have the obligation to try to set them right when they go astray. Thank God we live in a (relatively) democratic-republican (small d, small r) society in which it is possible for us to exercise this responsibility and fulfill this obligation, in a way that was not possible for those who lived in the Roman Empire in the first century, or in most places in the world at most times in human history. For all that our current political campaign for the Presidency has been, to my mind, tediously long and often distasteful on all sides, our proximate loyalty to our society requires that we inform ourselves and participate in the process and in the responsibility — while bearing in mind also that our actions and decisions and values should and must be informed by our ultimate loyalty to the God to whom ultimately all belongs, and whose Reign claims our ultimate citizenship.

[1] Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto VI.xvii.332-33.

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