Sunday, October 19, 2014

Render unto God

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today's gospel reading contains the verses of Scripture that have been famously translated as 'Render unto Caesar' - words that have been dear to the hearts of kings, rulers, politicians, and tax-collectors ever since. Of course, they often tend to forget that this phrase does not stand alone; it comes with the command that one must also render unto God the thing's that are God's.

But before discussing the passage itself, it is first important to put it in its context. Our readings at services tend to be quite short, and it is often very easy to forget not only that there are part of a much wider series of events, but indeed even the physical setting in which they are taking place. So it is good to remind ourselves of both when and where we are.

Scripturally, we are in the days between the Triumphant Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. This means it is just before the feast of Passover, or the springtime, a season when the weather would have been warm and pleasant, neither too hot nor too cold, a good time for sitting around in the open air, talking and discussing. Which is exactly what is happening in our reading: our Lord has been spending these days in the temple courts, teaching, spending his nights in the nearby town of Bethany, in the home of his friend Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Mary. Much of the teaching that St Matthew records of this time involves parables such as the workers in the vineyard and the wicked tenants, parables we have heard over the last few Sundays – parables that the religious leaders of the day thought were directed against them, accusations that they were leading the chosen people away from the kingdom of God and that it would soon be opened up to others, to gentiles.

Perhaps that explains the extraordinary scene we encounter today, Pharisees and Herodians working together. It is extraordinary because Pharisees and Herodians hated each other. The Herodians were supporters of the secular authorities, in other words King Herod. He was in place at the will of the Roman government. These means having the Romans in charge quite suited them and they didn't want anything to rock the boat. Naturally, they didn't have too much time for the Pharisees, who were in a sense a Jewish purity movement, strict observers of the laws and customs of their people, and who therefore definitely did like that the land promised to their people by the one true God was under the control of worshippers of false gods like the Romans. They would never have worked together in normal circumstances.

But these are not normal circumstances. The Pharisees think that not only is Jesus undermining their authority in society, but that he is a blasphemer as well, a false prophet who not only claims to speak for God, but that he is also the Son of God. The Herodians were worried by the fact that so many thought he might be the Messiah; the people thought the Messiah would free them from the Romans; and even a false Messiah could stir up a revolution, which might lead to the Romans deciding they needed to keep a closer eye on things themselves, without the need for a local king.

So both groups thought of Jesus as a threat; what we have here is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Even though they hated each other, Jesus was the greater and more immediate threat and they were willing to work together to eliminate him.

So they come together to conspire against him and come up with a plan to trap him. They begin with flattery: Teacher,' they say. 'We know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.' No doubt the crowd would have murmured their approval at these words. They believed in Jesus and the conspirator's words would have seemed like a simple statement of fact. But after the honey comes the knife: 'Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?' There is no way, they think, that Jesus can answer this question safely. If he says it is not legal, then he can be accused of stirring up the crowd against Rome and he will be arrested on the spot. If he says it is legal, then what kind of a Messiah is he, to say that it all right for the Jews to pay taxes to their Gentile oppressors? We can almost imagine their self-satisfied smiles as they wait for his answer. His first in reply must surely have wiped the smirks off their faces.

'Why do you tempt me, you hypocrites?' it says in the old translations. His words show to all present that he has seen through both their deceitful attempt at flattery and their trap. Interestingly, St John Chrysostom says that Jesus could have left it there. He has publicly exposed what they are up to; he has no need to answer further. And yet he does. He asks for a coin, the kind of coin used to pay the tax. It is, of course, a Roman coin as it is a Roman tax. He questions them as to whose image is upon it and whose name; Caesar's, they reply. 'So render unto Caesar what is Caesar's,' he tells them. And again, St John tells us that Jesus could have left it there, for with that answer he has defeated their trap. But again he goes further, and he tells them, and us, that we must also render unto God what is God's.

His enemies were amazed at his answer. What was intended by them as a trap to destroy him has resulted instead in profound teaching. We are citizens of heaven who live in this world. We must therefore obey the laws of this world. But in doing so we must not forget what we owe to God. It is not an 'either – or' scenario, for no just law can ever require us to neglect or fail in any way in our duty to God.

As I said at the beginning, the rulers of this world have always held the words 'render unto Caesar' dear to their hearts. And they have many ways of making sure that we do. So also will our Father in heaven help us to hold dear to our hearts the second part of that verse. He provides his Grace to help those who love him to render unto God the things that are his. Most of us spend a great deal of time and effort making sure we obey the laws of this world so that we can avoid the minor and temporary inconveniences that would result if we did not. This day I end with the prayer that will put even greater efforts into obeying the laws of the God who created you, both for love of him, and for the sake of the great and everlasting reward he offers to all who do. Amen

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