Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 16 October 2011
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
Politics makes unlikely bedfellows. The Pharisees and the Herodians, the ‘God-squad’ and the collaborators with the Roman oppressors, come to Jesus together to see if they can trip him up: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” They want to force an answer out of him that can be interpreted either as rebellion against the Romans or as disloyalty to the people of God. They are snookered by his answer. The fact that the coins with which they deal has Caesar’s image and inscription is a stark reminder that they are already participating in and benefitting from the Roman economic system. To that extent they have already given it their allegiance. To what extent is it right that they do so, and how do they maintain their religious commitments at the same time?
It’s not an either-or option. The truth is that by virtue of being human, we participate in a life that has economic, governmental, and social systems and powers. They are not inherently evil, but are essential for full human flourishing. Imagine a life of total anarchy. Imagine no economic system – remembering that even a return to simply bartering what we produce ourselves is itself an economic system. The problem is that systems and powers are never content to fulfill their God-ordained function, which is to promote the general welfare. The system always seems to turn in on its self and to become self-serving and unjust. It also reaches beyond its station to try to accrue greater powers. I think of the apartheid South Africa in which I grew up. There the government tried to usurp God’s prerogative to define the worth of all human beings made in God’s image and declare some to be worth less than others. It shames me to remember how I was duped into thinking that being a good Christian meant not being personally racist, but also not challenging the system, because government was ordained of God. I was giving to Caesar what belonged to God. The answer isn’t to carve life up into ‘God’ and ‘secular’ areas, and to give our allegiance accordingly. As Jesus reminded his questioners with the coin, we live in the world of the Powers, but this is ultimately God’s world. Jesus’ teaching to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ isn’t an easy formula that instantly makes it evident what we are to do in a given situation, but it is a principle that helps us to negotiate the maze of living in God’s world in which the Powers are created by God, but are fallen. We recognize their legitimate functioning, but challenge and oppose them when they step beyond their God-given calling.
The psalm is a beautiful reminder that this is God’s world, and that any authority and system at work within it is ultimately answerable to God. It, together with the passage from Isaiah, reminds us that God is at work in the real world and not just in some spiritual subsection of our existence. The prophet is speaking to the people of God who are in exile in Babylon, carried there a couple of generations previously by the Babylonian conquerors. He announces their imminent rescue by the hand of the Persian king, Cyrus. Incredibly, Cyrus is referred to as God’s anointed, as God’s messiah. Here is the power of empire at work for the general welfare. Cyrus allowed exiled peoples to return home and even gave them assistance to rebuild their lives according to their traditions. In this case, to cooperate with Caesar was to cooperate with God.
How do we navigate the minefield of submitting to the legitimate demands of authority while refusing to let them usurp God’s claim on our lives in community? Although Jesus’ questioners were being insincere, they spoke truly when they described him as an honest man who was not concerned with anyone’s opinion. It was precisely because Jesus did not play the status game upon which the System relies to keep people in their place that he was free to make wise and honest choices about his allegiances. And we can become like Jesus in this respect. Paul writing to new believers in Thessalonica reminds them of the power of the gospel at work in their lives. They aren’t simply called to accept some teaching and then try in their own strength to put it into practice. They have been given the Holy Spirit, and are therefore empowered to act with conviction. And their lives show it – their actions arise from their faith and their love, and the conviction with which the gospel was given and received gives enables them to endure in hope, even when ‘Caesar’ wants to extort from them more than he is entitled to.