Sermon - 19th October 2014
Scripture - Isaiah 45:1-7, Matthew 22:15-22
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Is government good?
Are governments part of God’s intention for humanity?
The readings we have heard today offer some interesting perspectives on how we should view the state. In the modern world we are used, in the West at least, to seeing a separation between religion and the state. This isn’t the case in much of the world and certainly wasn’t the case in Biblical times. The state, the government, could be seen as an instrument of God’s good providence, it could, and often was, seen as something that betrayed God’s love and kindness or it could be seen as an enemy of God and His people. Perhaps things haven’t changed that much now.
Our first reading from Isaiah opens with the rather startling sentence:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed:
This may not sound startling until you realise who Cyrus was: a pagan ruler. Not just any pagan ruler but the king who ruled Persia – what we’d now call Iran – between 558 and 530 BC. He established a vast empire which swallowed up the Babylonian empire and had a different policy to the religious minorities in his empire than the Babylonians had. The Babylonians had tried to destroy Jewish life and culture, the elite had been deported to Babylon, the Temple destroyed and foreigners shipped into Israel. Cyrus, on the other hand permitted local cultures to have autonomy and so provided the subjugated nation didn’t cause any trouble it was left alone to worship as it pleased. So when Cyrus defeated the Babylonians in 539 he allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild the Temple.
All this, of course, was appreciated by the Jewish people and by Isaiah who proclaims that this pagan king is anointed by God – quite a radical idea when you think about it. Isaiah names Cyrus as God’s shepherd as well, it’s as if God has commissioned Cyrus to be his tool, his minister. God has raised up a foreign king in place of the failed monarchy of Israel. The author even says that God will subdue other nations before Cyrus. Clearly the writer of Second Isaiah was a fan of Cyrus, maybe it’s a case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend but I sense there is something much deeper going on – this pagan, this person who doesn’t know God is doing God’s will and is being used by God to achieve His purposes. Further, the pagan Cyrus shows the people what God is like. The pagan knows God better than the believer.
So in the Isaiah passage we see that the failed monarchy of Israel had betrayed God but that a foreign government was raised up and used by God.
In our passage from St Matthew we see a different context but similar ideas being played with. The Jewish people now have a very different view of their government. No longer is the pagan government seen as their saviour but as a ruthless oppressor and enemy. The puppet government set up by the Romans had to obey them and was despised. Herod, the Jewish king, wasn’t really Jewish and did not represent the people and their views, the Romans didn’t understand the Jews, and didn’t really try to.
The question asked of Jesus has at its heart the relationship between our faith and our government. Should we obey the government? What if there is a tension between our faith and our citizenship.
Matthew’s story is set in the context of the hated Roman occupation of Israel. Taxes supported the occupation and so were loathed. Additionally, the way taxes were levied meant the poor were fleeced. Yet to say that one shouldn’t pay taxes would leave Jesus open to a charge of sedition, but to say they should be paid would make him very unpopular. It was a neat trap. Matthew’s readers, however, would be listening to and reading this story 60 years on after the Romans had destroyed the Temple and any chance of an independent Jewish state.
Now the Jews were scattered throughout the Empire and the early Church was battling with a lack of legal recognition, and the start of periods of persecution that would last for another 300 or so years. The Romans were not, at this point, seen as the anointed shepherds of the Lord. Jesus answer neatly dodges the question but we’re left with the issue of what do we render to God and what do we render to Caesar - to the government.
In the West we have a problematic relationship with our governments. We recognise, I think, the need for governments to ensure we live in peace and security, to help us with a basic safety net and to pursue policies which allow us to flourish. Yet, at the same time, we are increasingly disengaged from the political process, suspicious of politicians yet passionate about certain issues.
If we had a conversation about party politics I suspect many of us would feel a little bored, yet if we talked about fracking, or the Human Rights Act, or Scottish independence I suspect we might all get a bit more animated. For some of us governments are boring, for some of us they are a pain, for some of us they are instruments of God’s provision as they provide health care, education, and civil rights – often in opposition to God’s own people.
Yet in other parts of the world governments are not benign and boring, they can be terrible and terrifying. Many people in the Metropolitan Church/this congregation have seen the dark side of government and have been beaten and oppressed simply for who they are. And many of those governments are supported in their actions by the Churches in their countries.
Over the next few weeks the lectionary gets us to reflect on the nature of Christ’s kingship and the complicated relationship we have with the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of our world. We have, if you like, dual nationality.
Very often we confuse Christian faith with being nice to others, with being responsible citizens, with being pillars of society. Yet the earliest Christians were despised outsiders who were seen, by the Romans, as being anti-social because they wouldn’t join in with the Imperial religious cult which was the glue that held Roman society together. It is easy to see Christianity as being about being nice, being good, upholding society’s values but it’s so much more than that.
Every week we say “Christ shall come again” when we celebrate Holy Communion. Yet we don’t live as if that is a reality in our lives. We need to view our world, and its governments from the perspective of the coming Kingdom. What would the returning Jesus make of our world and of our governments – especially those who kill and oppress in His name?
Sometimes the reality of our world is too much for Christians and they seek to escape from it – sometimes by joining religious communities, sometimes by joining sects which are very suspicious of the world. But the Christian life isn’t about fleeing the world but is, instead, engaged in something of an attack on the world and many of its values and a calling to help save the world. We are a revolutionary force within history.
The earliest Christians didn’t speak out against slavery – it would be like speaking out against the lending of money with interest now or the system of finance which controls our world. But once you have a faith which says everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and that Christians should treat people with respect, love and equality, slavery becomes untenable.
What would we see as untenable in our world now if we lived with the knowledge that the kingdom is coming? What would we oppose with more energy, what would we support with more love?
It’s easier to see Christianity as a private form of spirituality. It’s more comfortable to see the Church as a club or institution. Yet the knowledge of the coming Kingdom makes us realise that the present structures of society are temporary – just as the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires were temporary.
The coming kingdom makes us rethink much in our world and makes us ponder our governments a bit more deeply. John Calvin, one of the main Protestant Reformers saw the government as one of God’s gifts for the welfare of the people (the family and the Church being other others).
We can see things like universal education and health care as part of that generous provision where the government is surely cooperating with God’s will and caring for those in its charge.
Often the rulers of ancient Israel betrayed God by following policies which meant the poor became poorer. The growth in the gap between the rich and the poor in our own country and in much of the capitalist world is a betrayal not just of the poor but of God who wants His creation to flourish.
Sometimes, pagan governments were seen as instruments of God’s will – as our first reading from Isaiah showed. Many religious people have criticised the greater liberalization in society over the last 30 years and have seen it as antithetical to faith yet I think these moves have, in the main, been a sign of God at work in the secular governments that rule us.
In the light of the resurrection, kingship and return of Jesus we look at our world with different eyes. The present social order – for all its good and all its evil – is passing. Only God and his kingdom are absolute; only God and His Kingdom can be the inspiration for true change, true hope and true justice in our world.