October 18th 2020 -
Rev Tom Mumford
May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ As it often does, our story today begins with a plot from the Pharisees to try and entrap Jesus. To catch him out. This time they send some of their younger students, those learning their trade, along with some Herodians, those native officials supporting the Roman rule. First, they attempt to flatter Jesus, trying to lure him into a false sense of security…but only to put him on the spot: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” They ask.
Dropping a yes or no question like this, they hope, will catch Jesus out, and put him in deep trouble. If Jesus says yes, they know that will upset some of the crowd so fed up with the emperor’s
rule in their occupied land. For them, to affirm the emperor’s right to taxes is as good as treason. But to say no, Jesus would be guilty of actual treason according to the law of the land, and the Herodians would be there to make sure he is charged.
Not a fun spot to be in. But of course, Jesus is too clever for them. He asks for a coin, the thing used for the payment of tax, and asks whose head is on it. “The emperor’s” they respond. Then comes Jesus’ famous response: ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.
His answer has them snookered. Not only do it allow him to escape the trap they set, but it also throws the question back to his audience. Now they must decide for themselves where the line between the emperor and God’s jurisdiction lies. What do you think? ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
When I first started going to church in my early 20s, I was amazed that for some, coming to church on a Sunday was in their minds what made them a Christian. This was how they lived out their Christian life, this was how it was marked, this was its ultimate expression. ‘Well, what’s wrong with that?’ you might say. Well I was amazed, because for me, as a person coming to terms with the Christian faith for the first time, hearing the teachings of Jesus Christ, realising the total reach of the all creating and all loving God, the source and sustainer of all life… …well, the reason why I was coming to church at all on a Sunday, was precisely because I thought I wasn’t being a Christian.
The reason I came to church on a Sunday, was because I needed help. I needed help to be a Christian, to ‘love and serve the Lord’. I needed help, to be able to do that for the rest of the week. For me, this service on a Sunday, or indeed any other day, was where I gathered with other people, who were honest enough to admit, that they had messed up too. Who knew they also needed to turnaround, to redirect their lives – who knew their need of God. That service was where we gathered together, to be nourished by scripture, to be fired up and inspired by the preaching, to be fed with the bread and wine of the Eucharist and to be formed as the Body of Christ (becoming what we ate)… …and then, finally, and perhaps most importantly, to be sent out for the rest of the week to go, and to get on with it!
For me, then, this new found faith, this new way of life, was not something that operated separately from everything else. There wasn’t, for example, a ‘church’ part of my life where I did Christian things, and then a ‘world’ part of my life where I got on with everything else. They weren’t disconnected, they couldn’t be. They were one, because God is one, and because it is God that gives all, and has given everything, life. ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
If all things are created and loved into being by God then, if all things are in essence God’s, with no separate realms, what are the implications for what Jesus is saying here? Because too often I think, this line has been used to justify the exact opposite of what was meant. Jesus most certainly does not mean (as I often hear) that politics and religion should remain separate, and that the Church should not interfere with politics. He certainly does not mean that bishops or priests, churches or Christian people should stay out of debates around policy and governance, issues of justice. Jesus does not mean that what happens in parliament or at elections has nothing to do with God’s purpose for the world. Or that the home is irrelevant to what happens in church. Or that what happens at work need not take account of the teachings Christ expounds. And so, when issues arise around low pay, homelessness, racism, discrimination, the environment and many others concerning justice, creation, and the dignity of the human person, Christians are not to stand by silently.
We Christian people are not to say ‘well that’s not our business, we just need to worry about the coffee rota and who’s doing the intercessions on Sunday’ (important though they are!) No! We are to stand up, to speak out, to pray for, to love, to challenge and to change. We are to give to God the things that are God’s, to love and cherish the things that are God’s. And we are to make the emperor blooming well take notice! But you know what else is God’s?
You. And you. And you. And you.
You are to be loved and cherished. You are to love and cherish one another. Jesus asked for a coin, he took it in his hand, and showed it to them. He asked: “Whose head (or whose image, in the original language) is on this?” The coin, of course, bore the image of the emperor. Fine, let him have it. But Jesus spent his whole ministry holding human beings and asking the same question. Whose image do they bear? Do you, we, us, bear? He asks. The answer? God’s. So look after yourself, he says, look after them. Give to God what is God’s. And don’t you dare throw yourself or others down or think you can spend them like a coin.
Love, cherish, bring hope.
I say this again and again, but I really mean it. You are called in Christ, to become truly yourself. More fully who you really are. In this place, through this way of life, through your relationship with God, you are set free from the voices and taunts of those people and platforms, that tell you: you aren’t good enough, you aren’t good looking enough, thin enough, young enough, rich enough, clever enough. In this place, through this way of life, through Jesus Christ, you are shown that the image of God, that fullness of love, of belonging, is pressed on your heart, on your soul. So what will you do with it? ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s’, but give to God the things that are God’s.