Our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is positive and hopeful. The people of Israel have been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years, but now there is the possibility of freedom . The Persian King, Cyrus will let the exiles return to Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple. The passage is a testament to the sovereignty of God:
‘I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God’ (Isa 45:5)
God can use a secular ruler, such as Cyrus, to bring about the flourishing and freedom of His people. However, as much as we can respect authority, it is clear that our first duty is towards God, to love Him, and serve Him.
This is exactly what the original recipients of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians have been doing. They have ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come’ (1Thess 1:9-10).
Our gospel this morning is all about a denarius, it is a small silver coin, about ¾ of an inch in diameter, the size of a modern 5p, or a penny. It was a day’s wage, the pay given to the labourers in the vineyard. A denarius was worth about £75 in today’s money and was the cost of the Roman Poll Tax. It’s amazing that such a small coin could have such a great value.
The conflict with religious authorities which has characterised our recent readings from the Gospel continues today with a wrangle over words. The Pharisees come to see Jesus with their students along with Herodians, supporters of Herod the Great, who were very much in favour of Roman rule.
The Pharisees begin the conversation with flattery, trying to butter Jesus up:
“Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” (Mt 22:16)
And at one level they are completely right, Jesus is not interested in opinions or appearances. What matters is reality: how you really are, in all truth and honesty. This is what matters to God, not how we appear, but how we really are.
So the Pharisees ask their question:
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:17)
If Jesus says, ‘no’ then He will be allying himself with the zealots, religious extremists, and making a provocative political statement for which Jesus can be denounced to the authorities. On the other hand, if Jesus says, ‘yes’ then the Pharisees can write Him off as a collaborator with the Romans, and show that He is not one of us, not a real prophet, or a true son of Israel. All the Pharisees are interested in is understanding what Jesus says in political terms. Their opening pleasantries ring hollow, they don’t mean what they say. The point of their question is not to discover the truth, but to discover a way to denounce Jesus as either a zealot or a collaborator.
Thankfully, Our Lord is aware of their scheme, and so asks them,
“Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. (Mt 22:18-19)
Jesus can see through their scheme, and subverts it, to serve His purpose, to announce the Kingdom of God. Jesus asks the Pharisees to show Him a coin. He does not have one Himself, either because of poverty or because of the image on the coins. On one side of the coin is the head , and an inscription which reads ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the god Augustus,’ On the other side the is an image of Jupiter seated on a throne and the end of the inscription, ‘High Priest.’ So the Pharisees bring Jesus the coin, and He asks,
“Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (Mt 22:20)
The Pharisees answer ‘Caesar’s’ leads to this reply from Jesus:
“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:21)
Whereas the Pharisees come filled with malice, and with a desire to catch Him out, Jesus instead uses this as an opportunity to show them the proper order of things. You should pay your taxes but also give to God what is owed to Him. That is a heart filled with love, love of God and love of each other. Living a life of offering which proclaims this love in the service of others and through the worship of Almighty God. This is where real power lies, and this is the truly subversive aspect of Jesus’ teaching. He proclaims in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the very heart of the religious establishment, in order to show people how to live, and live life to the full. Paying a Roman tax with a Roman coin is perfectly fine, but what matters much more is rendering to God the things that are God’s.
Jesus takes a trap and turns it into a teaching opportunity. The Pharisees wanted to dismiss Him as either a militant or a Roman stooge, but Jesus uses the situation to demonstrate the Kingdom of God in action. In His gentleness, His mockery of their pride and arrogance, Jesus shows the Pharisees how foolish they are. They claim to follow the Law, but have forgotten what its Spirit is. We may owe secular powers our taxes, but we owe God everything. He created us, and all that exists.
Jesus is asking us all a difficult question. What do you and I, all of us, render to God in our personal lives? If we claim to be disciples, then what does that actually mean in the way that we speak and act?
We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mt 22:37-40). We are to be generous, forgiving and kind, to the point of extravagance, because that is how God has been to us. It is a radically different way of living which demonstrates that while we are in this world, we are not of it. Instead, we render to God the worship which is His by right, not just in church, but in all of our lives.
Thus as Christians we follow a different set of rules, which give us lives of freedom. In the power of the Holy Spirit the Truth can be proclaimed, the truth which sets us free from the ways of the world, free to love and serve God. This liberty can be seen in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians to whom St Paul writes. Rather than worshipping idols, they labour for the living and true God, they are an example to Christians of how to live. Their lives proclaim the truth which they serve.
Jesus is opposed to either the collaboration of the Herodians or the rigourist harshness of the Pharisees, and instead proclaims the freedom and love of the Kingdom of God. It is a place of welcome: the image is that of the wedding feast to which all people are invited. People are too busy or preoccupied to come; others just don’t want to be invited: they mistreat the people who invite them. But this does not stop the invitation being offered to all, it still is. It is why we are here today. We join the Wedding Feast and are nourished by Word and Sacrament, so that we can be strengthened in love and in faith, to proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God. We are called to be an example to others and to draw them in to the loving embrace of God: to be healed and restored by Him. Because of what God has done for us, we are able to render to God the things that are God’s: lives characterised by the love and generosity which are at the heart of the Gospel. This is what really matters: living the life of the Kingdom here and now.
Let us therefore come to Him, to be healed and renewed, strengthened, and built up in love, so that we may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.