Trinity 20 – October 22nd October
Isaiah 45:1-7, Matthew 22.15-22
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
It is not hard in the current situation in the world today, to imagine 2 different groups of people with different ideologies and backgrounds at loggerheads with each other. There are several examples playing out on the news day by day. Hamas, Gaza and Israel and the longer running Ukraine and Russia conflicts.
This is very much the position where we encounter Jesus in our gospel reading this morning/afternoon. In amongst 2 different groups of people who held wildly different ideologies and backgrounds… When they choose to ask him a very tricky question about taxes, which I think has been a pretty vexed subject for at least 2 thousand years!!
In fact, taxation has been one of the instruments of government in some form or another for as long as human beings have lived in communities. Examples of taxation are known to have existed in the third millennium BC (over 4 thousand years ago). In Mesopotamia, one such tax was called ‘burden’, which suggests that taxes were no more popular then than now. In the absence of money that stands in the place of things of actual value, taxes in those days were paid in kind. Daniel Defoe wrote Taxes, like the poor, have always been with us. It was Benjamin Franklin another American president, who first captured the role of taxes in our lives ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’
In our gospel reading – the two groups Jesus is with are disciples of the Pharisees and Herodians. First of all, neither of these groups were on Jesus’ side by this stage of the gospel story in Matthew. Anyone coming up to you starting Teacher, we know that you are sincere and then asking a tricky question about money and taxes is really showing they are NOT going to be on side. To complicate matters further these 2 groups, though united in questioning Jesus (and not liking him) did not agree with each other on this topic either!
The disciples of the Pharisees – who were religious zealots of the day didn’t like Jesus because he criticised them for talking the talk not walking the walk. It was all about carrying out the right ritual at the right time. Not doing things with good heart and for God. They would have been in favour of not paying the tax, as they wanted power and wanted rid of the Romans.
Whereas, the Herodians were supporters of Herod Antipas, the puppet King of the Jewish nation established by the Romans. They feared Jesus was going to try to take on his power or his authority with the Jewish people. They were running scared for different reasons. They would have been in favour of paying the tax, as that was keeping their man Herod Antipas in power and in with the Romans. This is really a bit of a hornet’s nest for Jesus as whichever way he answers someone won’t be happy.
I suspect in our hearts and lives we can identify time and places where we have had this kind of dilemma. Where those we are talking to have very opposed views as to what should happen next. And there is no easy or obvious resolution in sight!
So they ask the question – 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? And Jesus spots their testing, hypocritical game and tells them so. That is a pretty brave thing to do – when someone is behaving like that do we normally call a spade a spade? Jesus final answer after they had examined the coin and found the emperor’s head on it – Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
The answer he does give is ambiguous, and has been interpreted in different ways. For some it makes clear that we have dual loyalties, to God in spiritual matters and to the state in temporal ones. Probably from this answer what the Herodians will have heard is that paying tax is right, but faithful Jews will know that there is nothing that is not God’s, so the disciples of the Pharisees will have heard him as rejecting the tax to Rome.
Others again have suggested that the avoidance of a direct answer is the real point: Jesus doesn’t tell people what to think, but requires them to work things out for themselves. No doubt his answer on this occasion could have sustained a market-place argument for hours, or been another complicated parable etc. as people tried to get to grips with what he was saying
Retuning to the world today – There really isn’t an easy answer to any of the questions posed by the conflicts ongoing at the moment and there are many innocent bystanders being hurt and killed. Both through the situation in Israel and Gaza and Ukraine. There are different people interpreting what is going on in wildly differing ways. In this complexity I think it is important that our first response is to pray for peace. We have been lighting a peace candle now for many months, and I found the prayer that had been produced by churches together in Great Britain and Ireland, which I found helpful. I put it in the newsletter and you should have a copy of it in your hands today.
Before we pray it together let me just explain how it starts with reference to some old testament characters. These characters show the width of God’s love, mercy and inclusion in every division from the very start. They are all from the family of Abraham and some of the earliest of God’s promises to show the depth of this prayer.
- Abraham is known for his faith and hope (and willingness to follow God’s command). His name means the father of nations.
- Sarah his wife is known for fear and doubt. She did not believe she would bear a child in old age to be the founder of a new nation. Yet Sarah’s name means chief or ruler.
- Hagar is the slave girl, who Sarah gave to Abraham when she failed to conceive a child – Hagar is treated very harshly, running away and being exiled as she bore a child Ishmael. Hagar’s name means immigration or flight.
- Isaac is the son of Sarah and Abraham who came along eventually – yet he is tricked by his younger son (Jacob) who takes the birthright of Esau his older son. Isaac’s name means laughter. This is the Jacob who goes on to have 12 sons!
- And Ishmael is Hagar’s son – And he was promised to be the start of a great nation too. He lived in the wilderness but have 12 sons (as did Jacob). For Muslims, his family line is in the origins of the prophet Mohammed…Ishmael’s name means God hears – referring to how God helps Ishmael in his difficult early days!
The point being God is God of everything and everyone – the flawed and the faithful, those who are deceived and deceiving, and those who are honest. In our hearts – looking at the need for peace in seemingly insurmountable circumstances and where we don’t know what to say – what is best is to cry out in prayer to God in the face of all these conflicts.
Let’s have some silence and then we will pray the CTBI prayer together.
O God of all of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael: Our hearts are broken in pieces at the suffering and murder of your people. Our voices cry for peace and for justice. Comfort those who grieve, console and heal the injured, be close to those in fear, restrain with your mighty hand those who perpetrate violence. Send us your wisdom in all that we say and do, that our voice may always seek justice, peace and security for all. Amen.
The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible © 1989. 1995