Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Harsh God?

Wingrave Methodist Church – Sunday 22 October 2017 – Trinity 19

Gospel Matthew 22

Paying the poll-tax to Caesar

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not?’

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’

21 ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.

Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.


4 weeks ago—Bow Brickhill—workers in vineyard. Mother—Proverbs 31. Parables about Kingdom—portray God negatively—Unjust Judge, Vineyard owner, Talents.

Gospel reading—paying tax to Romans—follows on from Wedding Banquet. Responsibility as citizens to civil and religious authorities—often conflict. Our responsibilities to law of land—our faith when there is conflict.

What is right and what is wrong?—how do we act when our faith collides with the law or the way society expects us to act?

Examples—same sex marriage in church—Sunday working—standards of honesty and conduct.

Poll tax question was a trap—opens with these words:

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.

Follows previous verse:

14 ‘For many are invited, but few are chosen.’ Many=Jewish nation=Pharisees. Herodians—political party supporting Herod the Great.

Trap question—no easy answer—started with flattery—called Jesus Teacher—commended his impartial integrity. One answer—trouble with Romans—subversion—campaign of disobedience. Opposite—trouble with people.

Margaret Thatcher latter-day example of troubled tax! Poll tax unpopular—recalls Can’t Pay-Won’t pay—slogan from 1990 riots. Jews traditionally paid religious taxes:

· Telos—merchandise and travelers—VAT

· Phoros—property

· Kensos—tribute to foreign rulers—started with first King—unpopular

· Temple tax—ancient—half shekel yearly by males over 20.

Teaching of NT[i]—people should pay tax to lawful rulers—here Jesus seems to concur. In UK—no church tax—no right to withhold.

Text is about Righteousness. Trap is set—Jesus answers cleverly—talks about two kinds of righteousness.

1. Civil righteousness

2. Spiritual righteousness

1. CIVIL—Martin Luther—discusses in introduction to 1535 commentary on Galatians. Civil—we work out daily—we are accountable for how we behave.

2. SPIRITUAL—our relationship with God—not something we can work on—determined by God’s love in Christ—we can no more increase it than walk on Jupiter.

In his answer to the trap—Jesus is drawing our attention to similar division of rightness in modern life.

1. Our obligations and duties as citizens locally, of our country, and the World—we owe to the state what is demanded of us by government

2. Our obligations and responsibilities as citizens of the Kingdom. We owe to God what is God’s.

If the two conflict, what we owe to God supersedes.

There are dangers—relying on our own strict interpretation of Scripture—current immigration and asylum seekers debate—some obligations are far from clear, like declaration of War and conscription.

In answering the trap, Jesus exposes the irony of the Pharisees—in paying taxes they give tribute to the Emperor—in seeking their own power over other people, they are failing to honour God.

We are to be in the world not of the world. What to do if we are at odds with the society in which we live? We may find our civic duty and rightness in voicing our opposition to government policy—engaging, being involved with, and understanding political debate—may lead to civil disobedience—Nelson Mandela—Desmond Tutu—Dietrich Bonhoeffer—Dalai Lama—Mahatma Gandhi—Mother Teresa—Malala Yousafzai.

We are not to confuse civil and spiritual—some churches and organisations are well known for their work for justice, peace human rights, relief of deprivation—but the danger is they place this work above the spiritual—Jesus asks us to keep them separate. We are in the world not of the world.

Equally the trap can be that we spend a lot of time on the spiritual realm—leading to being silent on the civic realm—we must do both, not one or the other.

Jesus did not come bringing harmony. He came bringing love, but especially in the church we recognize that we don’t always agree on everything. There are Christians on opposite sides of many issues, and that includes doctrine, authority of scripture, national and international relations, ethical and moral issues, and so on.

These present many traps for us. We recognize that people of conscience view the world in sometimes polar opposite ways. The key might be to find a way to proclaim the good news of God’s love for us while also calling people to think about what God’s good news and justice might look like in the world.

Essential to this endeavour is being open to listening for that call while realizing that others might hear it differently than we do. When we disagree, can we trust that God is at work even in those who think differently than we do? This is where today’s gospel comes in. We give back to God those things that are God’s. Let’s hope that we can. Amen

[i] Romans 13:1-7 1 Peter 2:13 1 Peter 2:14