Sermon - 25th August 2019
Pay back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
About 3 miles in that direction, inside the Manchester Museum near the university, you will find a shiny silver coin which dates back to the time of Jesus. It is called a silver denarius. The one in the museum even bears the image of Tiberius Caesar who was the emperor reigning in Rome during the public ministry of Jesus.
It would have been a coin just like this which Jesus used to support one of his most memorable sayings: “Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
It was such a neat, thought-provoking saying that, according to the gospel, it stopped his opponents in their tracks and they went away.
When he gave this stunning reply to those who were challenging him, Jesus was in a no-win situation. He had been set-up: it was a trap, designed to obtain evidence against him.
Two specific groups were involved in the trap: there were the Herodians – members of Herod’s party, staunch supporters of Rome’s right to tax the Jewish population, supporters of the puppet government arrangement, and probably profiting quite nicely from it.
Then there were the Pharisees; they opposed paying taxes to Rome – but they paid them anyway to avoid political confrontation with Rome.
No matter how Jesus answered that question: “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Rome?” he would end up alienating one of the groups.
If he said “yes, pay your taxes” he could be discredited with the Jewish community as a traitor to the cause of independence from Rome. If he said “no, don’t pay the tax” he could be denounced to the Roman authorities as a trouble-maker and a rebel.
It was by asking his challengers to produce a coin – a Roman coin! – that he turned the trick back on his challengers because it was a common view at the time that to use the Roman coinage was to admit a Roman obligation. So, in a way, by producing a Roman coin on request, Jesus’s challengers were answering their own question: Jesus just put it into words for them – but much more cleverly than they expected.
One interesting feature is that Jesus does not say we should choose just one of these options. He doesn’t say we should either pay our taxes to the state or pay our duties to God – he says we should be doing both.
Perhaps there’s a challenge here for us: perhaps we should be careful about dividing our lives into the sacred and the secular – one half given over to the worldly and the other half devoted to the holy, with little or no relationship between the two. We are not being asked in this example to make a trade-off between them: we are being asked to find a balance between the two.
But perhaps we’re still a little unsure about the second half of Jesus’s reply: how do we pay to God what belongs to God?
It would have been so convenient if one of Jesus’s disciples had asked a typical question at this point along the lines of: “But, Master, how should we pay to God what belongs to God.”
Then we could have had a parable from Jesus which would have made it all much clearer – or perhaps even made it much more complicated, depending on the parable! This happens elsewhere in the Gospels, why not here?
The answer seems to be that we have to work out our responsibilities for ourselves.
There are as many answers to the question “what does God require of me” as there are people who hear that question and seek to respond to it. But perhaps there is a broad approach which we can adopt when seeking to respond to God’s presence in our lives.
Perhaps we are asked no more than to explore and experience life with God as our companion.
We frequently describe life as a journey. Some journeys can be terribly limited: travelling by bus from Rochdale to Manchester is a journey – but it would be hard to describe it as a life experience. Perhaps God calls us to take a journey of exploration through God’s creation, and not simply move ourselves from point to point.
This would involve being constantly open to new experiences, new ideas, new challenges, new perspectives on our world, and new revelations about our Creator and about ourselves.
The journey of exploration - the openness it requires - enables us to grow spiritually and deepens our relationships with the creation which surrounds us and the source of life we find within ourselves and within each other.
If we have been given the gift of life by God, how can we pay to God what belongs to God if we are not prepared to explore every dimension of the life we have received?
Many of us are aware of the Iona Community in Scotland – many of the songs and spoken parts of the services here come from their publications. One of the centres which the Community runs actually on the island of Iona in the Hebrides is called Camas, and it offers a different kind of experience to the other island centres: it is aimed primarily at young people, some with special needs, with an emphasis primarily on outdoor adventure activities and on issues relating to the environment.
Its daily routine, including its worship, has a totally different feel to it, compared to life in and around the main Abbey which serves as the focus of the Community’s activities. The Camas centre is rather remote from the other island buildings, close to the sea, and does without creature comforts such as electricity and flush toilets. Their worship space was called the Chapel of the Nets as the centre had previously been fishermen’s houses.
A few years ago this was dismantled because it was thought to be limiting the ability of the Camas groups to really explore what worship meant for them at that time and in that place.
So each week, each group was invited to construct its own chapel – some even decided not to have one at all and to hold their services either in the dining-room or in the open air
This was much harder work than simply continuing to use the Chapel of the Nets, but the community found that worship became much more natural when they were no longer boxed in by the traditional associations of the old chapel.
The old surroundings held them back from their journeys of exploration through God’s creation. The old chapel somehow had separated the functional from the spiritual and, in Camas, this was uncomfortable.
In this our church, today and every day, we challenge each other to explore our lives with God as our companion. We seek to challenge boundaries which arise from human prejudice; we aim to offer worship which is accessible and inclusive; we affirm the message of Jesus that God’s love enfolds each one of us unconditionally; we offer opportunities to learn more about God’s creation and our place within it. We can and should embrace change and do more to explore how wonderfully we are made – that is our challenge as a church.
And yet the response from each one of us, about how to take part in the journey of exploration, ultimately has to be a personal choice. And it can be a choice which brings unexpected and unwanted consequences.
Allan Boesak was a South African resistance leader and minister. He wrote: “We will go before God to be judged, and God will ask us ‘Where are your wounds’? And we will say ‘We have no wounds’. And God will ask ‘Was nothing worth fighting for?’”
The pastoral care that we offer to people in this church confirms to me that we all have wounds. Indeed, many people here have fought for their very lives.
Part of that pastoral care includes what we did yesterday when some of us proudly affirmed in front of thousands of cheering people in the city centre that God sees our wounds and blesses the truth of our sexual and gender identities.
And the reason we are able to make those claims is because we have explored the diversity of God’s creation and have found our own true and unique place within it. For many of us, that is our journey: that is what we pay back to God - the truth of who we are.
Jesus demonstrated the ownership of the silver denarius by the image which was visible on it.
I challenge each of us to think about whose image of ownership is visible on us; visible in our daily lives dealing with the worldly authorities of our own time and place; visible to each other, as we live in community and in caring relationships with each other; and visible to the Creator who gave us the gift of life for a purpose.